Last year 39 people died on UK construction sites. Billy O’Brien explains how to make them safer with the aim of getting that number down to zero
The past couple of months have seen a stream of news stories about safety issues in the construction industry. More than a hundred people were exposed to asbestos during renovation work at the Palace of Westminster and a contractor from Bradford was given a suspended jail sentence after pleading guilty to putting ground workers at risk on a site in Manchester.
It is 2022. This is not OK. When the risks are so well known, it is totally unacceptable and shows the need for constant vigilance around on-site health and safety.
Main contractors have clearly defined responsibilities which are listed on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s website and everyone is aware of this. Accidents must be reported to the relevant authority under RIDDOR and near misses should be logged to prevent more serious incidents occurring in the future. No one can say the information is not clear, or available.
Despite the robust and straightforward guidance, 39 people died on UK sites last year. That is 39 too many.
With this in mind, and in the interests of promoting best practice, I would like to run through how to create a safety culture.
I started my career as a firefighter and many of the things I saw then would nowadays be considered as shocking as blowing cigarette smoke in a child’s face. These included employees accessing hoppers to remove blockages without going through the proper procedures first, or firefighters not wearing breathing apparatus when fighting fires.
Change for the better happened because the culture changed by consensus, to deliver a safer working environment.
Change takes time and requires constant communication and message reinforcement to people at all levels
Every organisation has, or should have, a safety culture. This can be either good or bad, and when challenges arise it is because that culture is failing to keep people safe from harm.
Transforming this situation to achieve something fit for purpose requires consistency and an ongoing, targeted approach. Change takes time and requires constant communication and message reinforcement to people at all levels.
Too often health and safety comms are boring, jargon-heavy and confusing. While this is ticking the box, it won’t be changing behaviour. Instead remember the principles of persuasion: people don’t like to be “told”, but persuasion is another matter.
There are seven principles of persuasion (devised by Dr Robert Cialdini) which are reciprocity, scarcity, authority, commitment and consistency, liking and consensus. By understanding these rules, you can use them to create safer sites.
Be visual, be funny and use the unexpected. While the topic is serious, you can still adopt a light touch.
For example Total Energy in Denmark made humour a core component in their behavioural safety campaign “don’t be a dummy”. It showed a crash test dummy undergoing various experiences which would maim or kill a human.
Using humour creates a bonding experience which makes attitudinal shift possible and longer lasting.
It is tempting to regard H&S protocol as solely an on-site matter. While this is important, the head and back offices play an important role as culture is set from the top.
Leaders have to walk the walk, modelling excellent safety behaviour at all times, not only on the construction site but elsewhere in their businesses
A Harvard Business Review study in 2017 showed that companies facing financial pressures saw higher levels of workplace accidents, as corners were cut to save money. So the C-suite should also beware the unintended consequences of decisions made at board level.
Leaders have to walk the walk, modelling excellent safety behaviour at all times, not only on the construction site but elsewhere in their businesses. For example, many contractors (rightly) ensure that office staff have to be safety conscious, reversing into parking spaces or having lids on hot drinks when walking downstairs.
Employees and subcontractors also need to be able to speak truth to power, to call a stop on jobs where they feel unsafe and to feel free to speak up when they can see how things can be improved. This means creating a climate of “psychological safety”, a term coined by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School.
Her research includes evidence that companies with a trusting workforce perform better. As she says: “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.”
So create a positive reporting culture where people can flag and log near-misses or accidents, knowing that managers will listen and act upon what they are told.
If something is identified as risky, then act upon it, and ensure that there is a way to guarantee this risk is not found elsewhere. Once again, inform those involved of changes made and make sure that any necessary training happens.
Training is key – and this has to be systematic and repeated. The importance of safety has to be clearly demonstrated from day one with a standardised site induction. Training records must be kept digitally and physically, and with each session a safety angle needs to be incorporated, with informal toolbox talks held on every site.
We need to work together as an industry to make construction sites safer
Personal accountability also matters. Reward workers who improve safety performance and recognise their efforts. Involve employees in the safety decision-making process instead of dictating new policies and priorities.
When instituting a new control, explain to affected workers why they are being asked to change what they normally do and tell them what success will look like.
Ultimately, we need to work together as an industry to make construction sites safer. I repeat, 39 lives lost is unacceptable and leaders can implement real changes to make their businesses safer.
Zero harm needs to become a non-negotiable baseline to rid ourselves of our poor RIDDOR record.
Billy O’Brien is a health and safety specialist at EcoOnline with over 20 years’ experience that incorporates consultancy and management along with developing safety systems. He holds a diploma in emergency medicine and started his working life as a fire fighter