We could put men on the moon but couldn't make roofs that installers didn't fall through, says Brendan Dowd, who wants everyone to take more care of each other.
Not many specialist contractors would send clients a brochure detailing their trade's sorry safety record. But Birmingham-based roofing contractor Rossway Dowd does just that.

The eight-page Safety in Roofing booklet lists the statistics that make roofing the most dangerous occupation in construction, and includes guidance so designers and contractors can avoid aggravating the problem. It relegates the more typical "pictures-of-roofs-we've-built" marketing to the inside of the back cover.

Brendan Dowd, the company's contracts director, says: "If we'd spent the same amount of money on a brochure with architectural shots of work we'd done, the first place it would go is in the bin. I believe a large percentage of people file these brochures because they want to know about safety. We are hoping our company is recognised as different by highlighting these problems."

The publication is typical of the honest and innovative approach to roofing taken by the firm, which undertakes commercial and industrial roofing contracts and employs 12 full-time staff and about 50 contract operatives. Dowd, who, with his brother Eugene, owns the £5m-a-year-turnover contractor, is typical of the new breed of specialist contractor. Motivated more by common sense than any government taskforce, Dowd would like to see the roofing contractor treated as an equal party in the construction process, rather than as a slave to the whims of designers and contractors.

Working together

Dowd says there is a simple reason why closer co-operation between consultants, contractors and specialist roofers would benefit everyone. "Roofing is more complex than people realise. It used to be a matter of fixing sheets on structural frames. That's not the game we are in now. We are involved in things like structural design calculations, rainwater drainage calculations, manufacturing lead times and transportation permits."

Greater co-operation could also improve the safety record, which Dowd describes as embarrassing. The firm has taken steps to tackle the problem, such as developing a proprietary safety system for installing metal deck installation on steel frames. But Dowd says better communication between specialists and designers could help further.

Four of the 37 deaths that occurred during new roof work between 1993 and 1996 involved installers falling through metal liner panels. Dowd says these accidents could have been avoided by specifying a trafficable liner.

"Okay, you could say that safety depends on how you install the product, but if the product was different it wouldn't be an issue," he argues. "Most designers consider a roof design's ultimate performance; they don't consider what it means to us, and we end up pricing specifications that we would never like to build."

Communication is key

Dowd believes that, sometimes, architects do not consult specialists during the design process because they feel threatened by expert input. However, he stresses: "I want to influence the design decision, not dictate it."

Safety is considered much more seriously now, it’s not just paid lip service

On other occasions, communication is prevented by the procurement process. "How can a designer go to a subcontractor who has no connection with him?" asks Dowd. "The distance between designer and installer is so wide that often the architect doesn't even know who the roofing contractor is."

This situation is not helped by manufacturers who do not pay enough attention to the safety of the person installing their products. "We could put men on the moon but, for a while, we couldn't create roof products that you couldn't walk through," he points out.

  "Manufacturers have a vested interest in selling products they have always made rather than recognising that those products don't have a place in the market."

Dowd concedes that the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations are changing attitudes. "Safety is considered much more seriously now; it's not just paid lip service. If you say safety is a problem, the architect, engineer, project manager and even the buyer, who only used to be interested in pound notes, will listen to you."

But he feels that some designers still don't fully understand CDM. "Designers see safety as a maintenance issue," he says. "It's not. More people get killed installing roofs than maintaining them. I'm not suggesting that maintenance isn't important, but installation is equally so."

CDM has certainly made a difference, but it is less clear what impact the Construction Act and the Egan initiative have had on the industry. "From what we've seen in the past 12 months, there is now more co-operation than confrontation," notes Dowd.

"The larger main contractors are reforming, but there is an inconsistency within companies at a regional level. Smaller contractors are taking longer to change; they are pretty suspicious of the whole process."

Egan's more esoteric ideas, such as continuous improvement or supply-chain management, have yet to affect any job Rossway Dowd has worked on, but Brendan Dowd would welcome feedback on his firm's performance to help him improve its service. When this comes, he hopes it will accentuate both the good and bad. "Everyone remembers what has gone wrong on a job. I think we should measure success as well."

Rossway Dowd is one of the first firms to register for the Zero Leaks Roof initiative. This is a scheme that recognises the need for pan-industry co-operation to improve the quality of roofing. It provides clients, designers, manufacturers, main contractors and specialist roofers with a certification system for the design, materials, workmanship and procurement of roofing.