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Keep it simple

Working lives - Health and safety

Health and safety management is so focused on guarding against litigation that the best way to safeguard lives - simple, clear communication - is suffering, argues Martin Barnard.

As the construction industry's collective awareness of health and safety increases, it seems to be increasingly hell bent on making it far more complicated to manage than it really is.

This unhelpful phenomenon is being driven by the ever larger spectre of legal culpability for health and safety failings.

Some within the industry have carved out niches as health and safety specialists - and it is to their advantage to have managing health and safety seen as complex and shrouded in mystique.

Many engineers, though, feel increasingly vulnerable as they manage health and safety in relative ignorance.

But health and safety need not be complicated, and there are good reasons for going back to basics. After all, what health and safety is all about, and what should be underpinning all efforts to improve it, is ensuring that workers go home fit and whole to their families at the close of each day.

In practice though, lots of construction professionals deal with health and safety either because someone makes them, or they are fearful of the law.

Fear of litigation is driving many to write method statements to cover themselves, when actually method statements should be as much a means of clear communication as a management record.

Indeed, the desire to establish a paper trail is causing the profession to lose one of its most effective means of communication which is verbal.

Admittedly, there is rightly a focus on providing clear instructions to those workers for whom English is not their first language. However, it should not be forgotten that a good part of the indigenous construction workforce may have limited reading skills - so what are they to make of a technically written method statement?

There are those who think that size is important when it comes to method statements and health and safety plans - that to improve on previous statements and plans you have to make them bigger.

There should be a golden rule for such documents - that their usefulness is inversely proportioned to their size. The larger they are, the less useful they become. No one is going to read them.

For anyone in the front line of making sure construction is safe it is important to ask the question: 'What am I trying to do?' The answer should be clear. If it is not first and foremost about securing the wellbeing of those they are responsible for, they should stop, take a step back and get back to basics.

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