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Neglecting safety at your cost

There is an interesting lesson in this week's client guide to British Nuclear Fuels (p22). The company's prime business drivers have changed. Out is the main aim of cutting costs by 25%. Top of the list now are safety improvements, and maintaining the licence to operate the Sellafield reprocessing facility.

This change of emphasis was prompted last summer when BNFL's business was damaged by the revelation that quality assurance data for fuel being reprocessed was being falsified.

Railtrack too has experienced a similar epiphany with regards to safety following the Hatfield crash. The drive to reduce maintenance and renewals costs and maximise revenues by keeping train paths open has given way to recognition that if parts of the network have to close to carry out work that will absolutely guarantee the safety of passengers, then so be it.

But can Railtrack and BNFL be criticised for their pursuit of cost savings? The recent enthusiasm, particularly to reduce construction costs, can be traced back to Government, and specifically the launch of the Rethinking Construction report.

In that document Sir John Egan told the industry that it was inefficient and wasteful, and crucially had the potential to make a lot more money if it changed the way it worked. He set targets for improved productivity, reductions in costs and construction time and for an increase in the turnover and profits of construction firms. He also set targets for safety improvements.

Clients, consultants and contractors all latched on to the opportunities to reduce costs and maximise profits. But in the enthusiasm, safety has often taken a back seat. People bursting with ideas for new ways of working that remove whole layers of project management or shortcircuit established procedures don't want to be told they can't do these things because there may be safety implications.

Two years on and the construction industry has reported a 60% increase in site deaths according to the latest figures (NCE last week) and is looking forward to a special safety summit with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott next February.

Movement for Innovation, the body charged with taking forward the ideas in Rethinking Construction, is highly concerned about the worsening safety record of the industry and the fact that safety is the one Egan issue that has not yet been taken seriously by the sector. On Monday, it launches its safety tool kit so companies can measure performance in terms of reportable accidents and so on.

The issue is not only that more people are dying on site, but that the industry's shocking safety record is one of the reasons young people do not want to work in construction. Ten years ago 33% of construction staff were aged under 30. Now the proportion is down to 25% for an industry already struggling to cope with skills shortages.

Constant bad publicity over safety is damaging to business in many other ways as well.

Thankfully, some organisations are beginning to learn that as a driver for a change in attitude such publicity is hard to argue with. Ask Railtrack and BNFL.

Jackie Whitelaw is managing editor of NCE

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