Next week the construction industry will present its ideas for reducing site accidents to the safety summit demanded by John Prescott. In preparation, Building invited seven people with extensive site experience to our own mini-summit to find out what they are doing to improve safety – and what more could be done.
Jeremy, the petrochemical industry has developed an exemplary safety culture in recent years. What can construction learn from it?

Jeremy Bamber: In construction, if something goes wrong, one or two people might die. In petrochemicals, everyone remembers events like Piper Alpha. One hundred deaths, or something like that, was just so completely unacceptable the industry had to act. Interestingly, all the companies went into it together, as an industry. One of the problems with the building industry is that there are so many small players. You get subcontractors under subcontractors under subcontractors. How do you reach them all?

David Price: The only way to do it is through insistence on very similar standards across the industry. So that everybody comes to work armed with their toe caps and hard hats, and we do it right on every site.

Matthew Riddick: People who don't wear their hats and so on won't find work in the regulated part of the industry – they'll be building next door's garden walls.

Jon Bray: It would be interesting to work it out. We'd probably find that 80% of the serious accidents happen in the lowest 20% of the industry.

Bamber: We're going to separate from them, I think. There's going to be a premier division and a lower division.

John Mead: Barriers need to be raised. At the moment anybody could walk on to a site with a box of tools and get work.

Riddick: We find a similar thing. We set a clear guideline: if you're going to subcontract, you've got to ask us first. Yet people turn up and they haven't got a clue who they're working for.

Mead: You get a lot of agency workers coming on site and I don't know how they're prequalified.

Paul Sims: They're not.

Bamber: In our experience, most accidents happen to people in their first week on site. It's people who come in casually to do a day's work. Even if you've got a good safety culture, in the first few days people haven't picked up that culture.

What are you doing to create that safety culture?

Sims: There are lots of little things you can do. We put signs on mirrors saying "this person is responsible for your safety". It causes a real stir on the site. Everyone thought it was a laugh but it does work.

Price: We've recently introduced zero-tolerance on our sites. Hard hat off, or whatever it might be, and you get a yellow card. Do it again and you're off site. I think if everybody does that then pretty soon we'll find ourselves in a much better situation.

Bamber: We're starting to say safety doesn't stop when you leave work. We have safety on the agenda of every meeting and if they want to talk about driving conditions on the way home we try to encourage that, so there's no safety distinction between home and work.

Sims: I have a friend in the industry who is incredibly safety-conscious, almost to distraction, and he fell off a ladder at home and broke his wrist putting up his Christmas lights. It took him about six months to confess how it happened. That changed his whole focus on safety.

Bamber: I think I'm getting better now, but I was certainly guilty not long ago of thinking about safety at work, but not at home.

Are training courses teaching safety adequately?

Mead: I don't think so. I've been through technical courses when I trained as a carpenter; I've also been through management degrees, and none of the courses I've been involved in offered any significant safety training or awareness. Most of the safety training you get is site-based.

Bray: There was no formal training on the courses I went through either. There were various modules, but nothing about safety.

None of the courses I’ve been on offered any significant safety training or awareness

John Mead

Sims: I'd agree with that. There's absolutely no emphasis at college.

Chris Hyde: I'd like to see health and safety training integrated into construction apprenticeships. I'm from a trades background and in my four years we touched on it – but I'd like to see it form part of a formal apprenticeship.

Mead: I'd like to see safety being a fundamental part of all the training courses from day one. Participants should be indoctrinated so they come on site with a safe mentality.

What about on-site training?

Riddick: The big contractors and established companies are probably doing a lot more training than a lot of the "hidden" industry. I wonder where the accidents actually do occur?

Sims: Toolbox talks on site are very important, but I don't believe people would do it unless they were checked. Generally, toolbox talks take place because they know management is going to visit.

Is the induction process effective?

Sims: Take a contractor that's given a job to a company to install a piece of equipment. You have an argument with them over the induction process: they say they've done four Bovis sites and done a two-hour induction on every one of them. They've only come in for two days, they say, give us a break.

Mead: I think that's a fault of the induction process. I've gone through thousands of them where I've sat in a room and been spoken at.

Sims: You go on to certain sites when you're doing a fit-out and the induction still reflects the groundworks. It's got to stay fresh, it's got to stay interesting, there's got to be interaction.

Price: Perhaps there's an opportunity there for the bigger contractors to get some commonality in the induction process. If people are going through induction time and time again, we should put in some other subjects that they can learn from, and extend their training as well.

Mead: It's an ideal opportunity; you've got a captive audience at that stage of the project.

Should there be an across-the-board safety training programme?

Riddick: Yes. The Major Contractors Group is trying an initiative where everyone carries a card. I think that if people have to have this before they can go anywhere they'll be willing, because they'll know that without this card they can't earn a living.

Price: It would work for large contractors but I don't know how it would work for a housing project.

Riddick: It's like a driving licence as I see it; if you don't have one, you can't drive.

Mead: The Construction Industry Training Board could offer the training, but I think there is a proliferation of these cards. The operatives don't know which one they need and the industry has to decide which one they're going to go for.

Sims: I like the idea of adopting something like they do on the railways with a card that you have to refresh every year. No safety training that year, no start on a site. Make it the company's and the individual's responsibility to do a recognised one or two-day course that reflects their activity, and without which they won't have a licence to work.

What is the attitude of site workers to safety?

Through training, we can get across the idea that it’s not macho to lose a finger

Jeremy Bamber

Mead: I don't think a lot of the trades on site are actually aware of their right to safety in many cases because they haven't had the training. And they're not aware of the regulations and the statutory requirements for safety equipment and site facilities such as toilets.

Bamber: People actually think there's safety on site because managers want it. It should be the individual who wants it because he wants to have earning power the next day when he goes to work.

Price: Often the employees don't feel it's necessary. It's the macho thing.

Bamber: But if we can get in there right at the start, through training, we can get across the idea that it's not macho to lose a finger.

Mead: People who have minor accidents tend not to report them. People don't say, I've cut my finger, I'll go and get a plaster. They carry on. They don't go in the accident book. Nobody knows the true figures for accidents.

Bray: That's something BP has taught us: if you measure the minor accidents, the major accidents won't occur.

How can the industry break down the macho culture and encourage greater dialogue on safety?

Sims: We've just kicked off positive reporting, which means enticing people to tell you about near misses. If you can get away from the blame thing – you've done something wrong and now we're going to crucify you for it – and actually get the guy who's seen something wrong to tell you, you then get to the root cause and you can address it.

Price: People think that if they tell on their friend they're going to be ejected from the site. We've had the same problems.

Mead: How often do you see a fellow worker turn round to another one and say, you shouldn't be doing that, you should be wearing your goggles or your gloves? That doesn't happen in construction because of the macho thing. But they might do if people thought they were going to get some kind of reward.

Sims: Instead of getting their lights punched out!

Price: The workforce would say, what's in it for us? If the industry was going to reward them, perhaps they'd be a little more interested.

Bamber: We've seen a correlation between near-miss reporting going up and accidents coming down. Recently, a demolition contractor raised so many near misses that I decided to give it a reward. We gave the foreman a £50 voucher, but he said all the lads had contributed.

Sims: So you had to give them £50 each!

Bamber: No, we put £50 in the canteen and they all had a free breakfast. It wasn't much but you have to reward behaviour like that.

Riddick: You probably got more than £50 of goodwill out of it.

Bray: That's a good way of breaking down the barriers between them and us as well.

Bamber: It's absolutely vital that managers play their part as well. Some of our workers said, look, we have to wear an overall on site, and we see managers coming on site not wearing overalls. So we've rushed out an order to get overalls for all our managers.

Sims: There are stories about projects in the USA where they held a draw if there were no reportable accidents in that month, and gave away a car. But if you were seen to do something unsafe you had your draw ticket removed. People were being escorted out through the back of the site with broken legs to make sure they stood the chance of getting a new car.

I’d like to see health and safety integrated into construction apprenticeships

Chris Hyde

Bamber: There's a real problem if you reward people for not having accidents, because you might drive it underground.

Sims: That's why positive reporting is the thing we're pushing. We need to encourage people to be open about the issues.

Bamber: And that's why we just give a reward for people who wear the right safety gear. We enter them in a draw. But what we found is it's getting to a hard core of about 10% who just aren't interested, even though they've got a reasonable chance of winning a decent holiday. You just know with them that the moment you're around the corner, the hats come off.

Should there be league tables of firms' safety records?

Mead: I'm not a great supporter of league tables, but when it comes to health and safety there should be naming and shaming.

Bray: The danger is you could push it underground.

Bamber: There'd be commercial pressure not to report accidents. You can guarantee the only thing that would be reported would be deaths. Deaths are the tip of the iceberg, and what we need to control is what's underneath – the minor accidents. So you could try and make a league table so it's not about the number of accidents but about positive measures.

Mead: I agree. Things like how many people on site are being inducted.

What do you think of the idea of roving union safety inspectors?

Riddick: You can't squash any initiative that's intended to improve things, so I'd encourage it. But on a roving basis once or twice a year, or even once or twice a month, you wonder quite what lasting input it's going to have.

Mead: That would be my concern. How often are they going to come round; will they go to the smaller sites where the real dangers are?

Bamber: Providing they don't stop the job every five minutes, I have no problem with anybody turning up unannounced on our sites. I would hope when they come round they would give us some advice and thoughts so we can learn. But I'm not sure that inspection, particularly for the premier league firms, is going to be the real answer.

Mead: I think roving reps are more suitable for the lower division firms.

Bamber: Whether it's union reps or someone else is a different issue. I'm peripheral to the construction industry, but I think you need to find some middle way, something everyone can agree on.

Is the Health and Safety Executive policing the industry effectively?

Mead: Let me ask a question. When you get an HSE visit, how many times do you get that visit without knowing? I've never been on site when an HSE visit has been carried out without knowing about it. So everybody makes sure they've got their hard hats on, their high-visibility jackets on …

So you know when they're coming?

Mead: Oh yes. It's round the site like wildfire. "The HSE's coming. Make sure you've got your goggles on!"

Bamber: That's horrendous. That's people who are reacting only because they see the big hand coming down. We'll never make any progress like that.

Positive reporting is the thing we’re pushing. We need to encourage people to be open about the issues

Paul Sims

Hyde: We openly invite the HSE onto our sites to see what we're doing. It gives us the satisfaction really that we are doing everything that is required and expected of us.

Bamber: How often do they visit?

Hyde: It depends on the size of the project. On a 500-unit site, a couple of times a year.

Mead: That slightly worries me. The number of HSE inspectors is woefully low. If they're going out to sites that they've been invited to, then surely they're not inspecting the dangerous sites.

I applaud you for taking that initiative but I think their resources would be better focused on projects that aren't in the premier league. Maybe we need more HSE inspectors and not roving union reps.

Sims: We'd love to have more people working for the HSE but I don't think they can afford it.

Mead: But if the unions are going to fund roving reps, why don't they plough that funding into the HSE?

Sims: I think that's a sensible solution. It makes me nervous UCATT trying to take that role. The agendas could get a little bit blurred. The HSE is independent, the inspectors give good advice, they know what they're looking at.

Price: They've got a very good reputation.

Sims: I've got a suggestion. Since we've got a lot of the main players around the table, what about their safety departments vetting other companies' projects?

Mead: That's a very interesting idea. If you've developed a way of improving safety and you walk onto someone else's site and see there's a gap in their safety management …

Sims: There's a synergy between the departments in the different companies, and it could take the pressure off the HSE.

Bray: What you wouldn't do with that is capture the lower league. You'd still be grappling with that issue.

Sims: Well maybe the HSE could subcontract staff from the safety departments of the big companies to inspect sites on their behalf. It could be a central core of construction safety funded by the major companies.

Riddick: You'd get an enormous increase in inspectors overnight.

Price: It would be an advisory thing rather than a policing thing.

Sims: We could get companies to donate time to the HSE on a part-time basis. I suppose it would be a bit like being in the Territorial Army.

Riddick: Yes, something you do once a year.

Mead: It should be part of safety officers' training that they spend some time working for the HSE.


Jeremy Bamber
project manager, BP.

In charge of the redevelopment of BP’s Sunbury premises, employing many of the safety techniques developed by the petrochemical industry. Jon Bray
director, Schal.

Project managed BP’s Sunbury scheme, working alongside Jeremy Bamber. Paul Sims
project director, Bovis Lend Lease.

Current project is Mid City Place, a mixed-use development in London’s Holborn. Matthew Riddick
senior project manager, Mansell.

Managing the conversion of a seven-storey office block in Paddington for Railtrack. John Mead
senior team member, Movement for Innovation.

A former carpenter, he is running the London demonstration projects. Chris Hyde
project manager, Berkeley Group Southern.

In charge of projects including a 16 ha mixed-use scheme at Royal Clarence Yard, Gosport. David Price
project manager, George & Harding.

Runs housing and commercial jobs in the Dorset area.

Firm proposals arising from the discussion include:

1) Increase HSE inspectors by seconding safety officers from major firms
2) Introduce mandatory health and safety training on all construction-related courses to instil a safety culture
3) Introduce a pan-industry card scheme for all workers as proof of safety training
4) Improve on-site training and explore ways of introducing common training across different firms
5) Increase workers’ awareness of their health and safety rights
6) Produce league tables of firms’ safety initiatives rather than just shaming firms with poor records
7) Share expertise and ideas by inspecting each other’s sites
8) Set up a central database of good safety practice on the internet
9) Encourage greater near-miss and minor incident reporting
10) Bring contractors in earlier at design stage to help architects design out hazards
11) Reward subcontractors for good safety practice
12) Focus on simple measures such as keeping sites clean and tidy

Poor site safety shattered my life

Eight years ago, industrial roofer Ian Whittingham, a 33-year-old from West Kirby, fell 30 ft through a factory roof. He is now paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Ian features in a video, produced by the Health and Safety Executive, to be shown at next week’s safety summit. Here he tells Building his story. “My accident happened when I was working overtime at a factory early on a Sunday morning. It was just a normal day and nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen. I fell through a roof and I remember falling – it was as if I was moving in slow motion – but once on the floor it was all a bit hazy and I don’t really remember much else until I awoke in hospital. Safety had always worried me on sites because I worked high and I realised that smaller sites were not as safe because they didn’t have as many safety inspectors as the larger ones. It also disturbs me how lads are suspicious of the safety inspectors that operate on their sites. But if they stop someone from dying, then that’s got to be worth it, hasn’t it? After my accident, I spent six months in hospital and six months in a care home, but I never really got depressed because I’m not that sort of person. I know and have heard of lads that have committed suicide or turned to drink, and you can’t blame them when they have the pressure of young families to support. It’s got to be remembered that the bills keep coming even after you’ve had an accident and you can be under a lot of financial pressure because your income stops coming in. I have had to redesign my life to cope with having a wheelchair. It can be very frustrating that I have to plan everything so carefully before I can go out, whether it’s to a restaurant or to the shops. The one thing I miss the most is the independence of just being able to go for a walk in the countryside or by the beach, just to clear my head. It’s especially bad when you’re used to working in an active job and then suddenly you can’t move freely anymore. I sometimes see the lads I used to work with and old friends. I haven’t got a girlfriend and I don’t know if I’ll ever have children, although I’m pretty sure I can because they have a very good fertility scheme at the Southport Spinal Centre that I attend. But I realise I won’t be climbing factory roofs anymore. I just hope that telling my story prompts action and some formal site training for workmen because at the moment anybody can get sacked on a Friday and start work as a labourer on a building site on the Monday without any formal qualifications.” Interview by Tom Broughton