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Safety strategy needs to kill climate of fear

Comment - Antony Oliver

Construction's health and safety record remains a tragedy. We have all grown up in the industry in the knowledge that too many people get killed at work, yet despite our efforts to turn the situation around we have continued to fail.

This failure is highlighted graphically by the Andrew Allan case. We see individuals and individual organisations intent on improving safety but collectively failing under a cloud of fear. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has much to learn from this case.

Our safety record is a tragedy for us all, not just for those directly involved in accidents.

By the time we get around to solving the problem, all the best people will have been driven away. After all, who is going to advise their children to enter an industry that is much more likely to kill you than any other?

And who is going to want to work in an industry in which you routinely fear criminal prosecution each time you make a decision, in which engineering experience and judgement has been replaced by regulation and lawyers?

We now risk entering a spiral of decline from which it will take the industry years to recover. Good sense must come to the rescue - and fast.

The sad thing is that we are where we are because of the supreme effort that has gone into making the industry a safer place over the last 10 years.

There is more money, more time and more management effort spent on safety in the industry than ever before.

And let's face it, the theory behind the Construction Design & Management (CDM) regulations is basically sound. Who can disagree that it is a good idea to ensure that dangerous practice is designed out of the construction process? Who can disagree that encouraging teams to assume more collective responsibility for safe construction is a good thing?

Surely it is a good thing to have safety specialists on hand to advise on the proper management of risk.

So what is going wrong? Why have the number of deaths and injuries on the UK's construction sites not plummeted since CDM was introduced in 1995? Why has the vast amount of investment not delivered better returns? Why has a professional engineer like Andrew Allan had his life and career put on hold for four years?

The answer lies not with the regulations but with their use and enforcement. Engineering has been replaced by box ticking. Good practice replaced by contracts. Desire to get it right replaced by fear of getting it wrong.

So rather than working to create a safe practical working environment, engineers are now spending time ensuring that they are in a safe legal environment. The 'Am I covered if things go wrong?'

scenario has jumped to the fore.

The HSE must take the lead in turning around this situation.

While it is right and appropriate for it to pursue prosecutions, it must cease the relentless search for human examples on which to demonstrate that it has teeth.

It is time for the HSE to refocus its time and effort on helping the industry. It must start to spend more time and money on engineers and engineering advisors and less on lawyers. The cloud of fear must be lifted before progress can be made.

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