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Safety: hit where it hurts

Next Tuesday 500 people sit down at a Health & Safety Executive organised summit in Westminster to sort out how to reverse construction's appalling safety statistics.

Despite recent discussion about the need to make unscrupulous construction bosses pay personally if there are fatal accidents on their sites, the major contractors have actually been putting effort into safety training and equipment for years.

They have found that you can tell people what to do as much as you like, and pass the buck as high up as you want. But if you do not change individual behaviour there will be no dramatic improvement. The major companies are now focusing on this (see p26) and the summit should pay attention to them.

A poll in NCE 's office turned up a variety of such dangerous behaviour in the past. This included one individual admitting to edging along a parapet five storeys up to get onto a roof.

The fact the client, contractor's project manager and lead designer were also on the ledge makes it no more acceptable.

Other revelations ranged from the highly unhealthy munching of a sandwich while walking around a live sewage plant to a foolhardy, unharnassed, balancing act on a narrow beam over a deep sea channel by a non swimmer.

Every one of the cases above was driven by an enthusiasm to get a job finished in a limited timescale. The results of our safety survey this week seem to confirm that, from an engineer's point of view, this desire - or need - to get things done quickly is costing lives.

It will be interesting to see how summit delegates resolve this. At the top level, clients, contractors and designers can perhaps be forced into allowing for and taking more time on projects. However, I suspect the discussions about cost will be interesting to hear.

But this will do nothing to stem the natural human desire to take a chance and push things on.

The summit will no doubt look at the steps being taken by much safer industries like the railways and oil and gas. But in terms of managing risky behaviour, they might do well to take the advice of many of the respondents to our safety questionnaire and learn from something more everyday - driving your car.

What really stops us risking our own and everyone else's necks, by speeding, say, is the knowledge that, if caught, we will get fined and ultimately lose our licence. Then we would not be allowed to drive at all.

Similar construction safety licences detailing what everyone on site is trained to do plus on the spot fines and endorsements for unsafe behaviour are well supported in our survey.

Perhaps such systems could be developed to help make people think more carefully about what they do on site and give them a reason to refuse to do anything unsafe.

How and who would police something like this to make it fair is of course the big issue.

Whatever is decided, those at the summit on Tuesday have to make sure safety is no longer perceived as just the main contractor's duty. It must become something that all individuals in the industry have to take responsibility for themselves.

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