We could improve construction in one fell swoop by making health and safety training a precondition for anybody becoming a company director
Last year I completed a five-day Institute of Occupational Safety and Health course. As chairman and CEO of a construction and property group, this is a very unusual thing to be doing – or so I am told. What is even more unusual is that my brother (property developer and joint owner of the company with me), our group finance director and two of our key divisional directors, along with other Simons leaders (both of today and tomorrow) were all on the course at the same time. So it was more than just health and safety training – it was more like group therapy.

2003 also entailed putting all our operational staff through the Construction Skills Certification Scheme, with the deadline of 1 January 2004. That involved 621 of us, myself included, tapping computer screens with multiple-choice questions. We have achieved our target and intend to make it a condition of trading with us in the future.

But back to the IOSH course. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me. First of all, I was struck by how bound up in jargon the whole training arena for health and safety is. The desire to quote case law at managers who need, and want, to gain the gist of the story, makes the whole subject more frightening and complex than it needs to be. Getting students to feel their anxiety levels rising must be a key performance indicator for most health and safety courses. There is a load of legal stuff, which people forget very quickly, and the overwhelming feeling you are left with is fear, no matter how many times the teachers say that this is all common sense and they don't want to frighten you. It's a bit like politicians saying "trust me".

Then there's the bewildering world of politicians and the legislative process. The more those politicians try to legislate and use their regulations as a stick with which we are "encouraged to comply", the further we get from the real solutions to problems. You have to wonder whether we are living in a commonsense world when the Health and Safety Executive charges a police commissioner for letting his officers work in an unsafe manner. While chasing criminals, one of the officers gets hurt and the HSE takes the case all the way to the House of Lords. What's going on?

The real onus on politicians is how to help companies, project teams and individuals be more aware of the culture surrounding the delivery of projects. Culture isn't something you can just write a new policy about, or even make a new year's resolution to deliver. Building this culture is something that takes years of regular, consistent and repetitive reinforcement to achieve. The quick-fix mentality, responsible for so much of today's legislation, will never achieve the kind of changes that our political leaders wish us to deliver.

Whatever else I had to do on the course, I was going to have to pass. The prospect of failing would not have sent a good message to our business, and so I did the revision to make sure I didn’t let the side down

Whatever else I had to do on the IOSH course, I was going to have to pass. The prospect of failing would not have sent a good message to our business, and so when it came to the test (and subsequent written project), I did the revision to make sure I didn't let the side down. As it transpired, I did pass and I also learned a tremendous amount about the technical and managerial models upon which the health and safety legislation and its delivery in the UK is based.

Another useful lesson was that I realised I should have done the course more than 20 years ago, on becoming a director of a company. It should be a precondition for anybody on a building or contracting board to have to go through the training process. Never mind about all the protestations from the industry bodies that we should take health and safety more seriously, never mind the latest registration system from the construction minister – one simple act would make sure all our industry improved. Make all directors of construction companies, and I mean all of them, take this course as a condition to holding a directorship. Getting our directors to do this course will probably have had more impact on our business than any other single course or message. The team has seen us putting in the effort, asking the questions, and to a certain extent recognising that we did not know the answers in the first place.

Whenever I'm at a cocktail party and I start up a conversation about health and safety, I find that senior professional figures have clearly distanced themselves from their responsibilities as far as the law and "commonsense" tests are concerned. I don't think they do it on purpose; they simply don't know about it. With more legislation constantly being loaded on to business – as the only group that can afford the price of improving the working conditions we all expect – we tend to regard the impact negatively. Of course the customers pay the price, but it's surprising how many developers, architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and project managers think that health and safety is the contractor's problem and not something they have to worry about. Wrong.