In striving for zero harm, Britain’s contractors have set the bar high and have rightly placed behavioural change at the heart of their initiatives. But ultimately the working environment remains a risky one, and more can be done. Mark Hansford reports.
We’ve put up barriers; we’ve told people what not to do. Now the industry is singularly focused on shaking up the way we behave, in a broadly united drive to eliminate deaths from construction workplaces.
But these workplaces themselves remain, almost by definition, risky places to work. Heavy materials being shifted around by heavier plant, high powered tools emitting deafening noise, toxic chemicals creating potent mixes, all in inclement weather, at all hours of the day and night and under intense time pressure. It’s a well known recipe for disaster.
“Ultimately it’s about the environment we put people in and we can do more on that,” explains Lighthouse Club president Douglas Oakervee.
Oakervee’s day job is chairman of Laing O’Rourke Construction Hong Kong, a firm that has put eliminating site risks at the heart of a strategy that aims to get 70% of work done by automated machinery in factory conditions.
“Design, manufacture and assembly off site is key for us, as it means fewer 0n site operatives, significantly reducing the risks,” he says. Laing O’Rourke’s vision would see a 60% reduction in labour on site.
“Design, manufacture and assembly off site is key for us, as it means fewer on site operatives, significantly reducing risks”
At the heart of its commitment to offsite manufacturing is the Explore Industrial Park precast concrete facility in Steetley, claimed to be the most advanced facility of its type in Europe. The facility, began production in July 2009, manufacturing a range of products including walls, floors, columns and beams for projects throughout the UK. Using offsite manufacturing means it can deliver precast and preassembled products and materials to the time, cost and quality standards demanded by clients.
The Explore Industrial Park complements the firm’s existing international offsite solution providers, which include Crown House Technologies Offsite, which produces mechanical and electrical units; Modulor in Dubai, which makes fully finished bathroom pods; and Redispan and Austrak in Australia, which manufactures, among its extensive component sets, conveyor systems and concrete railway sleepers.
“As well as casting reinforced concrete beams and columns we are now doing whole facades of buildings, complete with finishes and glazing, in the factory. By doing that you are eliminating the need for scaffolding and the risk of people falling from height - the biggest killer still,” says Oakervee.
“The biggest move forward on improving the working environment has been dispensing with scaffolding,” he says.
“It is quite a pleasure to see the workforce working in a factory environment. The atmosphere - one of calm efficiency - is very different to any environment I’ve been in before.
“There is little or no waste, there is very little physical handling of materials, and the risk to steel fixers is gone.
Workers fixing reinforcing cages with steel wire have traditionally been the most vulnerable on construction sites, facing high risks from tripping on steel reinforcement or cable or from falling on sharp, exposed steel cable.
Oakervee sees technology as the key weapon in the health and safety battle. Hand in hand with Laing O’Rourke’s drive for off site manufacturing is Building Information Modelling (BIM).
“If anybody is sitting comfortably, they shouldn’t be, because we are nowhere near the zero harm level”
Douglas Oakervee, Laing O’Rourke
“We as an industry have a long way to go on standardisation. BIM has provided us with the ability to create a detailed virtual model with every component identified,” he says, explaining that this information is then fed straight in to the automated machinery in the factory.
“It is not a glorified CAD model as many think. It is a sophisticated management model. Where does this fit into safety? It removes the risk of failure. Yes, it’s costly, but with BIM you can model as much as you like in advance, which gives you a much safer site environment because we know exactly what is going to be there.”
Technology is driving greater sophistication and improving safety elsewhere too.
“In tunnelling there has been a massive change,” he says. “Gone are the days where entire tunnels were pressurised, giving thousands of workers decompression sickness.
It was a widespread problem: during construction of the Dartford tunnel in the late 1950s 689 cases were of decompression sickness were reported among the 1,200 men employed on the two year job.
Modern tunnelling methods are more advanced, with usually just the cutter head pressurised. And tunnelling is getting safer and safer, with more and more men being taken out of the environment completely.
“I’ve now been in some tunnels in China and Japan where there is hardly anyone in them at all - they are almost entirely operated from an office at ground level,” says Oakervee.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is also about to enter construction parlance with a vengeance too.
“Plant has also improved no end, with buttons and joysticks replacing levers and pedals and cameras giving operators a 360° view around the equipment,” he says. There are still accidents, but maybe not for much longer.
Laing O’Rourke is experimenting with high visibility jackets and hard hats fitted with RFID tags that can alert plant operators of workers near their machines - and vice versa. The technology is already on the market and reportedly being used in Canada and the United States. And an enhanced, battery-free prototype has just been developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Duke University in the USA.
Hard hat experiment
“We are experimenting with RFID in hardhats. There are a few technological issues at the moment, but they will be overcome in the not too distant future,” he says, although he admits that getting workers to accept such a move may be a more of a challenge.
But that comes down to the boss, he says. “It has all got to come from the top. If it doesn’t you won’t get the labour force or indeed the management to follow it through.
“[Laing O’Rourke chairman] Ray O’Rourke takes it very personally and woe betide his managers who don’t fall in line,” he says. “Ray has made it clear he considers his business valueless without excellent health and safety performance.”
Health and safety has also been personal concern for Oakervee since a near miss moment back in the 1960s.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in 55 years is that we are all working to zero harm - even if there is much to be done. When I started work in the 1950s safety was not my priority.
It was eight years before I donned my first safety helmet - and that wasn’t for safety reasons. I’d been down a tunnel and got grout in my hair twice in one day and didn’t want it to happen a third time.
So I went into the stores and grabbed a hardhat. Later that same day a lump hammer was dropped from above and hit me right on the head. It’s probably fair to say that without that hat I wouldn’t be here today, and its also probably fair to say that from that day my attitude to health and safety changed,” he explains.
“We’ve come a hell of a long way from then. But if anyone is sitting comfortably, they shouldn’t be, because we are nowhere near the zero harm level. In 2010/11, 50 workers were killed in the UK construction industry, along with two members of the public. On top of that well over 3M days were lost through injury and illness. So there is a great deal to do before we are anywhere near claiming zero harm,” he says.
- The Lighthouse Club is a charity which helps construction workers injured on site. Visit www.lighthouseclub.org