Gangs of robbers, terrorists, politically motivated saboteurs … Contractors could be forgiven for thinking that their sites are under siege. But how can they fend off the enemy without blowing all their profit on security?
Has your site been a target for violent crime? Chances are that a building or site you’ve worked on has been trespassed on, vandalised, burgled, sabotaged, set alight or even bombed. security is now a major concern for construction firms, who are seen as prime targets for three groups: organised gangs, environmental activists and terrorists. And security costs on a high-risk site can wipe out a contractor’s profit on the job.

With the threat from all three groups growing, what security measures should companies be taking? And how can firms ensure that the money they spend safeguards rather than bankrupts their business?

Security is a booming industry. The players range from single-person companies to those such as Kroll, a US-based multinational with offices in 60 cities. Kroll employs a team of architects who fly around the world advising on building security at the design stage. In architecture, as in all stages of the construction process, anticipation is the key to security.

Kroll director Nick Cordon-Lloyd says: “People often build first, then think about security. But it shouldn’t be an afterthought – you’ve got to think about it right from the word go.”

Control Risks is a UK-based firm with a similar approach to tackling security issues. It advises governments and companies on threats ranging from kidnapping and industrial espionage to fraud and disruption by ecological activists. Christopher Grose, a director of Control Risks,

says: “It’s cheaper to build in security at the construction phase than to add it later: for example, you can design a building so that a single guard can see two entrances, and that way you don’t need to employ two guards.”

Grose warns that it is impossible to achieve 100% protection against thieves, protesters and terrorists. But he adds that thinking ahead can help: “We talk clients through how they would react to incidents and situations. We can prepare people for dealing with being asked ‘Did you not think of that?’ if something goes wrong.”

Economic crime is the biggest worry for managers. Thieves take £100m of construction equipment and plant from building sites in Britain every year, according to Tim Purbrick, a manager at TER, a company that tracks down stolen plant. He says: “The site manager’s car has more security than a JCB worth twice as much. There is a very lax attitude to security within

the construction industry, but that’s starting to change because the insurance companies are putting the screws on them. Insurers are throwing risks back at the industry, and in addition to a 40% rise in plant insurance premiums, the excess has gone from £1000 to £50,000. We are now seeing bonuses for people on sites being tied to the amount of plant theft.”

TER investigates theft of plant worth up to £30m every year, and last year recovered £500,000 worth in Ireland alone. Although most is resold in the country where it was stolen, there is a thriving export trade. A police investigation codenamed Operation Eclipse led to the conviction and sentencing of three men for a total of 11 years in 1999 for handling stolen plant. They collected it in yards in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and shipped it from Felixstowe to the port of Ashdod in Israel.

Purbrick also points to hotspots within the UK. He says: “Criminals are cherry-picking targets now security has improved. The favourite is the JCB3CX – they cost £45,000, and can be resold for 50 to 100% of that, so you don’t need to steal many per year to earn a very decent living.”

Organised gangs, such as the one convicted of shipping plant to Israel, are usually responsible for these high-value thefts. Purbrick says they plan their jobs in advance and often steal to order. The TER website warns: “Criminals have been known to come on to sites with low loaders and steal equipment in broad daylight by ‘looking the part’ – wearing high visibility jackets and hard hats, and carrying out work in a confident manner. They may also bribe poorly paid security staff, threaten them, or actually assault them. Late night thefts mean they can have the plant out of the country by the start of the next working day.”

There is another, more sinister type of plant thief, however, who is motivated by more than money: “We recover a lot of plant from either side of the Northern Irish border – terrorists steal it to fund their terrorism,” says Purbrick.

The good news is that there are ways to fight back. Registering your equipment with TER costs at most £100 a year, and increases the chances of recovering stolen goods. Tracking devices using GPS or radio technology pinpoint a machine’s location to within 10 m, and some set off alarms if it is taken off site. They don’t come cheap: the best systems cost £2500 to £5000 a month – but can cut insurance costs by 10 to 20%.

One risk that is often trickier to deal with is

the security problems posed by environmental activists. Grose says Control Risks advises clients on how to persuade pressure groups not to target their projects in the first place, but adds: “There are some groups you just can’t negotiate with.” One such is the Earth Liberation Front, an American group that caused $20m worth of damage last month when it burned down a

200-unit apartment block under construction in San Diego, California. A 12 ft painted banner found on the scene read: “If you build it – we will burn it – the ELF are mad”. And Earth First!, a direct action group of self-styled green anarchists that the FBI classes as domestic terrorists, has chapters in British cities including London, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. A trawl of their websites reveals hit lists of roads and buildings under construction, and practical advice on lock-picking, sabotage and evading the police (see Ozymandias’ Sabotage Handbook, below).

There can be a huge loss of contracts if you get security wrong

Security specialist

When it comes to protecting your projects from direct action by environmentalists, prevention is better than cure. Contractors keep Greenpeace's phones ringing with enquiries about which kinds of timber are acceptable for use. That way they hope to avoid Balfour Beatty’s fate at the government’s new Cabinet Office, where Greenpeace put up a 10 m high banner proclaiming it to be a “forest crime scene”. If you want to avoid trouble, you should allay the campaigners’ fears – for example, by proving that your timber is sustainable.

Dealing with implacable opponents is harder. There’s no way you can convince Earth First! that your road a good idea – but at least you can get local residents on your side. The battle for their support is crucial: if the locals support your project, then activists occupying the site will look like troublemaking cranks.

These activities are restricted to damaging equipment without hurting people. But security experts warn that contractors are coming up against a more violent outfit: the Animal Liberation Front. “Animal rights is the biggest threat to construction,” says the head of a detective agency that carries out surveillance

for companies threatened by direct action. The detective, who asked not to be named, spent

28 years with Special Branch before setting up

his own company. He says the ALF targets any organisation connected with vivisection – a strategy that crippled the pharmaceutical firm Huntingdon Life Sciences. He says: “Laboratories being built at the moment will certainly be threatened. Contractors will get letters saying, ‘don’t build this’. Then comes the second stage: coffins are sent to round to your house, and demonstrations held outside it. All this is a manageable problem, but it comes as a shock.”

Several high-profile projects have hired security experts to manage these risks. For example,

the detective has given advice on security at

the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus under construction near Cambridge. At his suggestion, protective measures such as a magnetic field

that set off an alarm when broken were installed. His company is paid to keep close tabs on the protesters – although he won’t reveal his methods. “Our job is to say what’s going to happen when, and how many are involved.”

The detective also knows about the most chilling threat of all: terrorism. He dealt with security during the construction of the Channel Tunnel, where the IRA was threatening to plant bombs for future use. Today, the threat is compounded by the spread of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

Last year, Georg Sieber, a psychologist who predicted the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, told Building that there could already be bombs hidden in buildings, and the recent search for hidden explosives at Wembley stadium shows that the police and contractors are aware of the problem. A spokesperson for Multiplex, the contractor building Wembley,

says: “Multiplex did have a meeting with police recently concerning voids, and this is standard procedure.” Similar security procedures are believed to be in place at the Scottish parliament.

In light of the increased risks of terrorist attacks, firms are keen to recruit people with counterterrorism knowledge. “Most construction companies have former police, military or intelligence people working for them, sometimes at board level, because there can be a huge loss of contracts if you get your security wrong. On government projects, each contractor is required to give written assurances that they’ve vetted each employee on the site,” says the detective.

And he has some practical advice for anyone

How to meet the three main threats

Organised crime
The threat Gangsters steal valuable equipment from your site and sell it on the black market.

The defence Put tracker devices on your JCBs, be suspicious of unfamiliar men saying they’ve come to collect equipment for the hire company, and make sure your security staff are paid enough that they don’t need to supplement their income with bribes.

Direct action
The threat Eco-warriors and animal rights activists make your life a misery by occupying your site, sabotaging plant and sending threatening messages to your staff.

The defence Try and convince them that your project is environmentally sound. If that fails, then get local residents on your side, increase security on site, and consider turning to the police and/or detective agencies.

The threat Al-Qaeda or the Continuity IRA infiltrate your site and hide a remote-controlled bomb in the half-built structure, with a view to exploding it later.

The defence Carry out background checks on every site worker, and tell them to look out for anything suspicious. Search for anything suspicious in hiding places such as ducts and elevator shafts.

Site sabotage the Ozymandias way

When eco-warriors sabotage a site, their tools include wire-cutters, wrenches and blowtorches. But their most useful weapon might well be Ozymandias’ Sabotage Handbook, a practical, detailed two-volume work circulating on the internet.

“The height of my career was sabotaging dumpers, JCBs and two Caterpillars within 50 yards of the security office,” says Ozymandias in the introduction. Ozymandias, of course, is a pseudonym, and the handbook, like the sabotage it encourages, is a collective work. The tone is remarkably similar to that of a DIY manual, though occasionally a bit of radical rhetoric creeps in. For example: “If I want to spike a fuel tank to blow a JCB (less noisy than hammering off the locked fuel cap) I use a centre-punch. Only Babylon’s infernal machines can bring Babylon down.” Another popular handbook is Road Raging: Top Tips for Wrecking Roadbuilding. The emphasis is less on covert machine-wrecking, more on occupying sites and harassing people. It includes the following passage: “You can exert significant pressure by targeting a company away from the road site. Subcontractors and suppliers are particularly vulnerable … an action against a contractor’s office abroad will really worry them! You could also try visiting senior managers at their lovely homes.”