How can clients, contractors and consultants approach health and safety more consistently without compromising innovation and their own unique compliance requirements?
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In the bad old days, health and safety on construction sites was lax, with a “do what it takes” attitude to getting the job done. Thankfully, however, they have improved over the years. But what still needs to be done in the industry to lower the barriers to safe working on site and to change, once and for all, an ingrained culture throughout the supply chain?
This question was posed to a group of leading industry experts at a recent Bam Nuttall-sponsored NCE roundtable discussion in London. One of the main themes which emerged was that the industry lacked a consistent approach to health and safety. This applied to the different firms in the supply chain and the training requirements of different client organisations.
Network Rail director of safety & sustainable development infrastructure Roan Willmore said: “I know in Network Rail, the supply chain is crying out for a consistent approach and they are also asking for consistency between us, London Underground (LU) and Thames Tideway. A lot of the suppliers work across all of these clients, but it’s very hard to achieve consistency, even within Network Rail, so it’s a massive challenge.”
Heathrow Airport Ltd safety improvement director Ruth Gallagher defended the “inconsistent” training requirements between different industries, saying that it was really important for Heathrow to know that its workers understood the specific risks working around an aircraft environment.
“We accept that workers have a certain level of induction training which will cover health and safety, however, when working on an airport environment around aircraft there are rules of operation that need to be understood,” she said. “We are trying to educate them to the risks that they might be exposed to, or specific information that they need to understand.”
Thames Water head of safety, health and wellbeing Karl Simons agreed with Gallagher, saying that its passport system allowed the company to know that personnel on its sites were trained to deal with working in specific environments.
“It’s very hard to achieve consistency, even within Network Rail, so it’s a massive challenge”
Roan Willmore, Network Rail
“At Thames Water, regardless of who’s working for us, we know that they’ve been trained to a specific competency level as we have a passport system, so everyone has to go through our passport course and that goes through our specific risks when working on our sites,” he said.
But Safety in Design director Liz Bennett bemoaned the fact that tier 3 contractors all too often had to modify their safety management systems to fit in with a range of tier 1 contractors’ requirements. This led to confusion when working for different clients and across different sectors she said.
“Tier 1 contractors need to learn to be more flexible when they look down towards those below them in the supply chain.”
Willmore said that a balance around consistency and innovation had to be struck.
“If you go for too much consistency you’re in danger of stifling innovation, and so there’s a balance to be had between being completely consistent and so inconsistent that it’s confusing to the supply chain,” she said.
CITB head of health and safety Kevin Fear responded by saying: “There is definitely a place for consistency as many of the SMEs are just looking out for what it is they have to do and many of them are confused. It’s not that they don’t want to do the right thing; there are so many standards around training - what are the essentials they need to know?”
“SMEs don’t often have access to the same level of competent professional safety advice that large companies do,”
David Knight, Flint & Neill
Kevin Bridges, a partner with law firm Pinsent Masons, also noted that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) often find health and safety complicated as they find it difficult to gain access to the information they need.
“SMEs don’t often have access to the same level of competent professional safety advice that large companies do,” said Bridges. “They typically don’t have the capabilities in house and might struggle to find the resources needed to support them.”
Heathrow’s Gallagher agreed. “I used to work for the Construction Confederation, manning their health and safety helpline, and the smaller companies would ring in for advice, for example, how to do a risk assessment. I’m not sure now where the smaller companies would go for that advice and support.”
The discussion then moved on to talking about leadership and the treatment of workers in the industry.
Skanska health and safety director Dylan Roberts raised a question about the competence of the managers in the industry.
“The supervisors who are setting the tone day in, day out need to have the right level of competency and that means their attitudes and beliefs as well as skills and knowledge.”
Willmore agreed and elaborated, saying that maintaining the momentum was all about leadership. She thought this would come once leaders recognised the fact that employee wellbeing could bring benefits of its own.
“Once leaders recognise the wellbeing issue from the financial, human and societal perspective, and understand it, they are far more likely to engage and they will drive it forward,” she said.
Heavy handed leadership
Bridges said a heavy-handed leadership approach to health and safety was to be avoided.
“Even though I am a lawyer, I don’t believe the law should generally be the stick to beat people into taking action to improve. Leadership and commitment generally have a more positive impact.”
Roberts responded by saying that getting a better output was about good relationships.
“It’s about respect and how you talk to and treat people - whether they’re a large crew or a two man team.”
Bam Nuttall health and safety director Phil Cullen agreed. “The loyalty that people have towards their companies is loosening - with the skills shortage, how do we keep people in organisations? There’s a lot of money out there and the thing that keeps people working for them is that they think that the person they work for cares about them. It’s so important.”
Simons added that large national infrastructure projects really helped to demonstrate what could be achieved in health and safety and innovation.
“They have a ripple effect to SMEs and large contractors to say, look what we did in our industry and I think it’s remarkable what we’ve achieved.”
He also said that it was important to reveal their mistakes and let people inside and outside the industry learn from them.
“Also I think a lot of it is shaping the visibility,” said Simons. “We showcase on our external website www.healthandsafetyhub.co.uk every injury that leads to lost time and we get several thousand hits from around the world. That helps the whole industry to learn and that’s a huge shift.”
Cullen summed up the discussion by saying: “As someone who has been on construction sites and run construction sites, being on a site which is run well is joyful. To work alongside the right people, to be led by the right people and build something is amazing and that is what I’d still like to see in 10 years’ time.”
Liz Bennett Director, Safety in Design
Kevin Bridges Partner, Pinsent Masons
Ben Cronin Features editor, NCE
Phil Cullen Health and safety director, Bam Nuttall
Kevin Fear Head of health and safety, CITB
Ruth Gallagher Safety improvement director, Heathrow
Dylan Roberts health and safety director, Skanska
Karl Simons head of safety, health and wellbeing Thames Water
Katherine Smale technical reporter, NCE
Roan Willmore Director, safety and sustainable development infrastructure, Network Rail