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Construction can and must learn safety lessons from other industries

The headline on London’s Evening Standard’s story of the tragic death of a Crossrail worker on Friday resonated with me.

“First Crossrail worker killed in tunnel accident,” it read, appearing to infer that, while this was the first, more could and should be expected.

It’s a great shame, given the leaps and strides our industry has taken on safety of the workforce in recent years. This collective effort was demonstrated best on London 2012, where the entire construction programme was delivered without a construction-related fatality.

And now Crossrail, as our leading project, is at the forefront of taking this on. And it had been doing well. Its accident frequency rate was below the industry average.

So it is certain that last week’s tragedy will have sent shockwaves through client Crossrail Ltd and its contractor BFK.

A “full and thorough” investigation is already underway, and you would expect to see full co-operation from all involved. You have to go a long way now to find a contractor or designer that does not put safety at the top of its agenda.

But that could almost have been part of the problem. As Network Rail’s Nick Elliott tells us this week, such have been our advances in safety that there is a real danger of complacency creeping in.

We’re not paying enough attention to the near misses. We’re not learning fast enough from other safety critical industries such as oil and gas.

And it is not as if there have not been warnings. As recently as last November, Health & Safety Executive chairman Judith Hackett told the ICE/Costain health and safety prestige lecture: “For chemical engineers, process safety and loss prevention is at the heart of what they do, developing inherently safer design and working to stop catastrophic events”. “In civil engineering it is a significant element to health and safety that remains unaddressed.

“Hackett said the main lesson was that one must “never assume the worst can’t happen”. The worst could be basic human error, or it could be the failure of a monitoring system leading to structural collapse - but invariably it is a system failure that permits the human failure.

Her point was reiterated by Justice Haddon-Cave QC who has reviewed of the broader issues surrounding the 2006 crash of a Nimrod aircraft in Afghanistan which cost 14 lives.

He said the Nimrod disaster shows that “it is very, very important to look at the underlying causes”. Because, as he said, it is “very easy to blame the guy with the screwdriver”.

Let us hope this will not be the case here. Let us get to the root cause of the tragic accident. Let us correct the Evening Standard’s opinion of us. Because, more to the point, while fatal accidents on UK civil engineering projects are now very rare, one fatal accident is still one too many.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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