Contractors are facing a worrying trend: the sabotaging of sites by their own workers – sometimes even by their own security teams – and the cost of putting the damage right is beginning to hurt. Now they're getting tough on the vandals
What would you do if you arrived on site one morning to discover that your beautiful new building has been covered in graffiti – and nobody to blame but your own staff or subbies?

This is the nightmare Carillion has been confronted with. Saboteur workers have been causing thousands of pounds worth of damage to equipment and machinery on one of the contractor's residential projects and a high-specification office in the centre of London. But now Carillon has had enough, and over the past few months it has been carrying out a series of secret investigations into who the culprits might be.

The investigation has revealed that its projects have suffered a variety of attacks, from Stanley knives being used to cut through and destroy recently laid laminate flooring in the residential scheme, to graffiti on completed parts of the same project.

Carillion's situation is, unfortunately, not an unusual one. Bovis Lend Lease last month found itself on the receiving end of sabotage on its landmark BBC headquarters project at White City in west London (see 17 April, page 11). Bovis found that workers operating in a restricted access area caused more than £10,000 worth of damage on the scheme by deliberately cutting the building's systems control cables, a move intended to cause maximum disruption, and one that the firm is still investigating.

Sabotage hit the national headlines last May after the Potters Bar train crash in which seven people died. Contractor Jarvis argued in the aftermath that sabotage could not be ruled out as a reason for the points failure that caused the derailment. The firms has yet to publicly respond to last week's Health and Safety Executive report that claimed the accident was caused by poor track maintenance.

All of which poses the question of how big a problem sabotage is in the industry as a whole – and what the motivation is for the workers who attack their own workplace?

Richard Houson, Carillion's operations director for the South, reckons that the problem is widespread throughout the industry. "It has become a big issue – and one that it is costing Carillion tens of thousands of pounds to put right," he says.

Houson adds that Carillion has moved swiftly to deal with the problem, because it is costing the company a small fortune, not only to repair the damage, but in added working time and disruption. He says the firm has launched investigations in a desperate attempt to catch the perpetrators so that they can be prevented from repeating their crimes.

The thing that grates is that there is no reason why people cause this damage; there’s no logic to it

Richard Houson, operations director, Carillion

The first tactic Houson has used has been to warn workers of the consequences of their actions with a series of posters and warning notices placed on the site. But he admits that this has not had much impact, and that more drastic measures have had to be taken. "We have been putting covert cameras and CCTV on to the sites to catch the culprits," he says. "These are malicious acts of vandalism and we aim to deal with them as quickly as possible."

Houson stresses that he can think of no specific reason why the workers have been carrying out the damage – he says there has been no worker unrest on the scheme. "That's the thing that grates, I suppose – there's no reason why people should go to work and cause this kind of damage; there is just no logic to it."

But a leading criminal psychiatrist suggests that the poor working conditions within the construction industry generally, not specifically at Carillion, could be the main reason for the sabotage – as well as firms' unwittingly employing some of society's less mentally stable citizens. Kevin Clearly, a forensic psychiatrist at the West London Mental Health NHS Trust, thinks a hankering for revenge goes a long way to explain why workers damage construction sites.

Clearly believes that workers within the construction industry could be carrying out the sabotage, as they may feel resentful about the way they have been treated by building companies in the past. "Workers in the industry often have to deal with poor site conditions and working environments, and this feeling is stored in their memory – either consciously or subconsciously – and could prompt the need for them to carry out vandalism."

He says resentment is triggered when they are working on sites and they feel the need for some kind of payback – they take it out on their employer's equipment, often at a much later time in the worker's career.

Even more worrying, Clearly adds that there is a certain group of people that simply like to carry out acts of disruption. "Unfortunately, there are people in society that are sociopathic and do take great satisfaction in causing damage to just about anything. There would be a proportion of these people acting in this way on construction sites," he says. Clearly believes that the easy access to materials and equipment in the construction sector explains why the industry may be particularly prone to this kind of attack.

Industry figures, however, point to another more obvious reason why workers commit acts of sabotage on sites. A leading M&E contractor says it has suffered acts of vandalism on a project that has cost it more than £40,000 to repair. But he points to a blatant self-serving motive for the incident: the sabotage was carried out by agency staff looking to earn an extra buck.

Temporary workers sometimes try to create extra work for themselves by damaging the project

M&E contractor

"Temporary workers want to carry on working on a project for as long as possible," says the contractor, "so it is known that they sometimes try to create extra work for themselves by damaging the project. They can earn money by putting it right."

The contractor adds that the use of agency workers can lead to problems with permanent staff. He says that when you need to top up permanent staff with temporary workers, the agency workers often join a project on a higher rate of pay than those on the company's books. This can cause resentment among those who feel they are being treated like second-class workers, and in turn can create a motive for anybody wanting to give the company problems.

Other, more sinister, motives for sabotage on construction sites are emanating from Glasgow. Here, there is an increasing problem with dodgy security firms that are policing construction sites across the city. Trade association Scottish Building has contacted police informally to complain about such firms putting intense pressure on contractors to use them to "protect" sites. If the contractor is not amenable, the security firms step up the pressure by using fear and intimidation – including sabotage.

A source close to the trade association confirms that one major contractor is having problems with site vandalism, and that it is thought to be linked to rogue security firms. "Contractors in the city are beginning to communicate with each other about the problem, and waiting to see if the damage is part of the problem with security companies," the source says.

He adds that it is very difficult to prove to the police that these firms are employing people specifically to intimidate contractors, but that it is a major concern. He says: "We'll just have to wait and see if a trend emerges on sites – but one thing for sure is that if deliberate damage is being carried out, then the reason for it needs to be established. It is costing a lot of money."

Carillion's Richard Houson feels that the best way to deal with the problem is to restrict the areas where workers can go and to monitor them more closely. He says the problem on Carillion's sites has subsided since he began installing CCTV. Not that this has stopped him stepping up all-round security. He says he is handing over a high-specification office scheme to a client this week and has employed 20 extra security guards to look after completed parts of the project – this is the time when the project is most at risk from sabotage.

"I now up security on projects when it is close to handover as that is when it seems that the vandalism is carried out. We are also putting extra restricted work permit areas onto projects." He adds: "We have needed to act because it was costing a huge amount of money."