“Construction is inherently risky.” So said the sting for last week’s ICE/Costain health and safety prestige lecture.
It has proved to be a chillingly timely summation of the industry, with the lecture delivered hours after the collapse of a supermarket under construction in South Africa and just days ahead of the collapse of another supermarket, this time in Latvia.
In both cases people were killed. In both cases the construction work has been blamed.
Such disasters are far less common in the UK. But that doesn’t mean the potential for catastrophe has gone away.
Far from it, in fact, was the clear message from Health & Safety Executive chairman Judith Hackett who, while applauding the industry’s efforts to boost safety, lambasted it for falling behind other industries such as oil and gas in the critical area of process safety.
“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,” she said.
“In civil engineering it is a significant element to health and safety that remains unaddressed.”
That point was reiterated by Justice Haddon-Cave QC who conducted the review of the broader issues surrounding the 2006 crash of a Nimrod aircraft in Afghanistan which cost 14 lives.
“The [UK] construction industry is clearly top of the class on slips and trips. But it has got a lot to learn on process safety. Other industries have been doing it for years,” he said.
The first and most important lesson, said Hackett is to “never assume the worst can’t happen”. What the worst is depends very much on your specific sector – it could be basic human error leading to a train derailment or it could be the failure of a monitoring system leading to structural collapse.
She cited the December 2005 fire at the Buncefield oil storage terminal, where an explosion was triggered because a cut off system failed.
“But the learnings are many and widely applicable. “They knew the cut off system didn’t work well. They knew it hadn’t been installed properly. In the absence of action they put their own fix in place. The problems were overlooked,” said Hackett.
In other words, it was a management failure. Which is significant, because it was the same with the Nimrod.
As Haddon-Cave said, citing the first key recommendation from his Nimrod investigation, “it is very, very important to look at the underlying causes”. And as he said, it is “very easy to blame the guy with the screwdriver”.
Almost all of Haddon-Cave’s recommendations have been adopted by the Ministry of Defence, which goes to prove that change can be made in any organisation, no matter how cumbersome.
So it’s time for construction to step up to the mark