Two years ago, the Major Contractors Group launched its ambitious safety drive. The industry has done well so far but now it must pursue the initiative to the end
The safety initiative launched a couple of years ago by the Major Contractors Group has now reached a crucial stage. We were very proud that we managed to get the whole thing off the ground in the first place; the agreement all the majors signed in April 2001 is a rare instance of an influential group of companies initiating a serious programme of reform and committing to agreed targets. Great credit must go to John Armitt, who chaired the safety committee, and Bill Tallis, director of the MCG. Now, though, comes the really hard part: pushing the initiative forward and, above all, keeping our commercial nerve.

To recap, the MCG's 19 member companies have agreed to:

  • Give all site workers safety inductions before they are allowed to start work
  • Ensure that all site workers are qualified by 2004
  • Guarantee that all sites hold meaningful consultations on a regular basis
  • Reduce reportable injuries by 10% a year
  • Reduce the incidence of ill-health by 10% a year from 2003.

Meeting these targets was always going to be more difficult than it sounds. For example, although the first three measures may look simple to implement, they require us not only to work harder, but to change fundamentally the way we employ and treat workers. So far, 55% of our workers hold a competence card – something we have achieved through an enormous collective effort, together with considerable aid from the Construction Industry Training Board, among others.

And now it's going to get harder still. But if we can increase that percentage, it will drive real change and inject quality into the supply chain. Conversely, if we stop now, it's hard to see how we'd ever regain the momentum.

The challenge we face is twofold: to know who is on our sites, and to make sure they have a minimum level of competence – on health and safety matters in particular. Again, this is harder than it sounds. It's not enough that we know who's on the best-organised or the biggest sites: it must be all sites and all times. Then, to raise the level of competence, we need to invest in training as the only way of creating value in our workforce. When you consider how much we struggle to attract new employees, this may not be such a bad idea.

We may end up with a two-tier industry; divided not by size, but by competence in respecting and protecting its workforce

Having said that, I've often heard the complaint from contractors that such investment is hard to justify. "We are training the entire industry, because each month we have a different workforce." True, but so what? At worst, we are creating a wider pool of trained labour that is available to the whole industry. At best, we will have sorted our supply chain and created our own workforce that we can use again and again.

The fourth and fifth commitments we made two years ago are significant because they require us to continuously improve our performance. Equally important, though, is the MCG's commitment to publish the results – good or bad – on an auditable and verifiable basis. This is entirely consistent with the Health and Safety Executive's report Revitalising Health and Safety in Construction, and other government initiatives such as the Respect for People component of Egan's Rethinking Construction agenda. Our targets take these initiatives forward, because they represent a programme of implementation that will – given time, commitment and perseverance – make our industry safer and more attractive.