Peter Mason - In the wake of the safety summit, how can construction clean up its act on health and safety? It could start by learning from the oil and gas industry
Last year, widespread concern over poor safety standards in construction led deputy prime minister John Prescott to demand senior industry leaders attend a summit to address what was seen as a wholly unacceptable situation.

At the summit, held in London this February, environment minister Michael Meacher berated our industry for what he called its "appalling health and safety record". He painted an alarming picture of an industry which employs 1.5 million people and accounts for one in three work-related deaths. Of this 1.5 million people, 96,000 suffer back injuries and 5,000 suffer noise-induced hearing loss.

Sadly, he was not wrong; it is shameful that the industry has not been able to introduce the changes needed to create a safer working environment and a more safety-conscious workforce.

New Health and Safety Executive statistics show that construction experienced more fatal injuries in the nine months from April to December 2000 than in the 12 months to 31 March 2000. The 92 deaths between April and December 2000 fell just one short of the 1996/97 "black" year, when 93 workers and members of the public were killed on construction sites.

Statistics like these make grim reading and scream out for change – but how can an industry as diverse and fragmented as ours bring about the radical changes needed? One way could be to learn from what others are doing. Perhaps we could learn from the offshore oil and gas industry, which operates in a potentially dangerous and certainly challenging environment.

Amec is one of the few UK companies with significant activity in both construction and oil and gas. It was a leading participant in the Step Change in Safety initiative launched by the oil and gas industry at the end of 1997. This set an ambitious target to improve all aspects of safety across the offshore and onshore oil and gas markets by 50% by the end of 2000.

Interestingly, Step Change also promoted a culture change across the whole of the oil and gas industry, including clients, and engineering and service organisations. The first action to be put into practice after the launch was a commitment by senior managers to establish their own safety performance targets, including external, internal and personal goals. This would be a visible demonstration that safety was at least as important to them as business performance.

It also introduced the notion of total workforce involvement, requiring a culture of safety to be spread at every level of a company, supply chain or facility.

However, crucial to the success of Step Change has been effective leadership – and that means starting at the top.

At a recent conference in Paris Malcolm Brinded, chairman of Shell UK, addressed 160 of Amec's senior managers from around the world. He made it clear that for Shell, safety has to be the top priority. To this end, the company has introduced a traffic light system of red, amber and green, to evaluate performance. If a company is in the red, it will not work again for Shell, no matter how competitive its pricing. Amber means serious corrective action must be taken.

The construction industry employs 1.5 million people and accounts for one in three work-related deaths

Other key aspects of Step Change included better guidelines for safety communication, improved induction processes, standard performance measures and safety observation systems.

Collaboration is another factor – companies in many sectors of the oil and gas industry are now talking and working together in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.

Health and safety statistics for the oil and gas industry in 2000 show an improvement of around 30% on 1997, measured across a range of performance indicators. There was also a considerable reduction in high-risk situations, confirming an encouraging downward trend.

Amec's oil and gas performance in 2000 was the best to date, with lost time frequency rates of just two per million man-hours worked. A particularly notable achievement was our offshore construction yard in Newcastle, which recorded 15 months without any lost time – a step change in performance since 1997.

These results are impressive compared to our industry, but I believe a similar "step change" in construction may be just around the corner. Brave words perhaps, but now, for the first time, all the main construction groups are collaborating to introduce action plans to improve health and safety performance among members.

As Amec's representative in the Major Contractors Group, I am committed to the development of the MCG health and safety charter. Following its introduction, Amec's businesses are now taking whatever action is needed to implement this within their activities.

Key targets of the MCG strategy include a 10% reduction year on year in reportable accident incidence rates, and the introduction of workforce qualification requirements, leading to a fully qualified workforce by the end of 2003. They also include greater consultation with the site workforce on health and safety issues and a commitment to introduce safety committees on every project on which an MCG member is the principal contractor and on which there are at least 25 workers.

To achieve this year-on-year reduction in Amec, we are seeking to spread best practice from our oil and gas business to our other activities.

I believe that we have been successful in this, although it is clear we still have much to do. I also believe that the whole construction industry should learn from other industries, many of which are several years ahead in their approach to safety management.