Working on live roads and railways is one of the most hazardous jobs in the construction industry. Workers often operate alone, in unfamiliar locations and bad weather. Danger lurks at every activity.
Atkins, with its UK-wide highways and railways maintenance contracts, puts hundreds of its employees in those situations daily. In a major bid to keep them safe it has invested heavily in a national control centre where they can be monitored round the clock. Staff call in to get safety briefings before starting work on a job, and workers' progress is monitored to ensure that everything is OK.
The control centre is also used as an incident response system for its railways work and Highways Agency Areas 6, 10 and 11 contracts; a service management centre for its Gloucestershire Highways contract; and for road space management on the Area 10 contract.
Plus, the Highways Agency uses the centre for controlling its winter maintenance operations; Wrekin Construction uses it for its BT Open Reach contract in Wales; and even airport operator BAA gets in on the act for monitoring baggage handling faults.
'The centre opened in June 2005 and call volumes have grown from 4,000 to 20,500 a month, ' says Atkins technology team business development manager Graham Martin.
But safety is where it really comes into its own. 'By far the largest portion of our work is the safety operating system, ' says Martin. 'It provides support for any member of staff on any network. It is a pro-active, pre-flight check. For example, we check if there are confined spaces, electrical risks, excavations or the need to work at height. The system also identifies lone workers and gets them to call in hourly.
'The system ensures staff are fully trained for the work they are about to do, and provides a 100% audit trail. It also tracks rejections, so can show up lack of competencies in the workforce and hence training requirements.' The centre carries out around 5,000 checks a month. About 3% of workers are rejected.
But what does the workforce think? Is it too much big brother?
'You are talking about a twoand-a-half minute phone call, ' says Martin. 'If you look at what causes accidents, 79% are down to behaviour. We can change behaviour if we check, challenge and evaluate risks every time we deploy staff. We are acting as a co-pilot.
'It makes workers think about safety and the hazards around them, ' adds control centre manager Teresa Moss.
'One of our best quotes came from a worker who said: 'I used to look after the public's safety, before myself. The safety questions the control centre ask make me think about my own safety.' The system has already proved its worth. 'We had one incident where one of our vans left the road and ended up in a field, ' says Martin. 'When the gang didn't report in we went out looking. And we found them.'