For managers on site, taking responsibility for health and safety can be a matter of life and death. And for graduates in their early twenties, that responsibility can weigh very heavily indeed.

Michael Rider doesn’t lead the carefree existence you might expect of a 23 year old just out of university. “Because it can be so dangerous on site, I don’t stay out with my friends when I have work the next day,” he says. “They don’t like that – I don’t think they’re aware of how much responsibility I have for the guys on site.”

Rider is a construction supervisor for Carillion, one of the many twentysomething engineers, site managers and construction managers who have the responsibility for other people’s safety weighing on their young shoulders. As Chris Tickel, a 26-year-old project engineer for Balfour Beatty, says: “My friends complain they’re under pressure, but I think to myself, it’s not the end of the world. If I mess up at work, someone could die.”

This responsibility is on top of their duty to master the technical side of the job and to deliver their first projects on time and on budget. The young managers are the first generation to have had the moral and practical importance of health and safety instilled in them since the beginning of their careers, but the pressure on them to identify every possible hazard can be hard to handle. David Wrench is a 28-year-old health and safety adviser at Costain. He says: “The responsibility is always at the back of your mind, but if you thought about it too much, you wouldn’t sleep at night.”

Kier site manager John Bolton, also 28, is no stranger to bouts of insomnia. “I did have a series of sleepless nights a while ago. It was before the biggest job I’ve been in charge of so far, which involved a road closure in central London and manoeuvring a 27m long steel truss over the top of a six-storey building, using a crane to 90% of its capacity. In construction you can reduce risks to a negligible factor, but things can go wrong that have gone unaccounted for. When my friends moan about the tedium of their office jobs, I just think, if they spent a day on a building site, it would open their eyes.”

And it is not just the safety of site workers that managers need to worry about, as the deaths of a local resident and a crane operator after a crane collapse in Battersea in September tragically demonstrated. “A few months ago I had to do a presentation to some kids at a nursery that was next to a site I was managing,” recalls Michael Black, a 28-year-old site manager for contractor Morrison Construction Services. “I showed them pictures of a building site and told them how dangerous they can be. If one of the fences wasn’t secure enough and one of them had run on to site, that would have been my responsibility.”

Risk assessments and method statements are reassuring – but everybody knows they do not stop people cutting corners when under pressure. One of the most daunting aspects of the job for new site managers is that they’re in charge of experienced workers many years their senior. “It takes confidence to deal with fairly large guys,” says Wrench.

“The hardest thing is to challenge individuals,” agrees Bolton. “You feel you’re fresh-faced and just out of college and guys who’ve been working on sites for 20 or 25 years don’t like being asked to do things by people green to the industry. They started out before health and safety legislation – it’s not what they’re used to.”

Rider’s experience has been different. He says it’s the younger guys who put up the biggest fight. “Usually the older a person is, the better they take it. They know through experience they should be doing it differently,” he says. “It’s the younger kids, the labourers and joiners, who cause you the problems."

The talking cure

Bolton’s tip to young managers is to watch their tone. “There are ways of asking people to do things. As a young person your approach must be respectful. You’re dealing with very skilled workers who’ll always know when they’re doing something wrong. They’ll take the risk when doing smaller jobs, like they’ll step over a handrail, and when you say something, they’ll say, ‘Just a quick job, mate’.”

My friends complain that they’re under pressure, but I think to myself, it’s not the end of the world. If I mess up at work, someone could die

Don’t take on too much, advises Tickel. “It’s about how you think about it in your own head,” he explains. “If you think your job is to boss them about, it will affect the way you talk to them. Your job is to manage them, not boss them about.”

Rick Gray has plenty of suggestions for those new to the job. He’s 25 and a construction manager for Bovis Lend Lease, but he also trains other people in health and safety management as part of the company’s “incident and injury-free” programme. “We’re looking at the human side of safety, which includes the way you approach situations,” he explains. “If you point your finger and shout in order to make somebody know they’ve done something wrong, they’ll immediately be defensive. They’ll think, what does this guy know? But if you confront someone constructively and ask what’s missing, you’ll get a much better response.

“The other week, a subcontractor stood on a scaffold board spanning the top rail of a mobile tower – he was using it as a hop-up to reach something. I told him to stop working and stopped the entire team of 15 or 20 and we discussed the risks of working at height. They agreed it was not worth putting themselves at risk in order to get a job done.”

Not all managers in their first years of the job feel quite so confident about stopping 20 workers to have a safety chat – there is their employer’s time and money to think about. “I had those concerns the first few times I stopped people,” says Ewen Hunter, 29, site manager at HBG. “But taking 10 or 15 minutes to stop a group to reiterate why something they are doing is dangerous is time well spent – if someone is injured they’ll be off work for days, weeks or more.”

Wrench says it can be hard to convince new site managers that health and safety is their top priority. “Sometimes we really have to explain to them that they won’t get into trouble for stopping something.”

Despite their initial nerves, all of the young managers had reassuring words for people embarking on their first job. Training helps, they say. All of them had taken either CITB-ConstructionSkills’ five-day site management safety training scheme or the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s four-day “managing safely” course.

And however alone you might feel sometimes, your employer should be behind you. “You’re never left on your own,” explains Hunter. “The guy standing next to you has responsibility for health and safety, too.”

Rider has only worked on site since August last year, but he has already got used to having responsibility: “Once you’ve taken that first step and made your voice heard, it becomes second nature.”

“Being a construction manager is not an easy job,” adds Gray, “but it is something you can learn.” Which will come as some relief to those new site managers just experiencing their first sleepless nights.