There is a suspicion in the industry that contractors are fatalists. That is, they make the right noises on health and safety, but privately believe that fatal accidents come with the job. But now Bovis Lend Lease has put in place a global strategy to reduce site deaths to almost none.
It's very hard to stop John Spanswick and Peter Jacobs when they are talking about the theory and practice of safe construction. Spanswick, who was promoted to head Lend Lease's European operation last month, starts the discussion with "this is something I feel very strongly about". Then, for about an hour and a half, he and Jacobs explain in great detail just what they mean by safe construction, illustrated by countless examples and anecdotes. Spanswick's explanation is larded with business jargon – "changing the culture", "step change", "integral approach" – but he is not just making the right noises: he and the company are in deadly earnest. Things are going to change.

Bovis' initiative, known as the incident and injury free campaign, stems from a meeting Spanswick had last year with a Lend Lease colleague about his business plan for the year. One target in it was to reduce accidents 10%, and his colleague asked whether he thought the target was acceptable. Spanswick had a Damascene conversion. "It suddenly dawned on me: do we really believe that's what we should be doing? Deciding to kill 10% less people than last year?

I ended up agreeing it wasn't acceptable. We then started to talk about why any incident or injury should be acceptable."

Jacobs, Lend Lease's European health and safety director, contends that a dangerous consensus has grown around the safety issue. He has described contractors' attitudes to safety as "political correctness". He says they claim, almost as if it were a mantra, that safety is the "number one priority", but fail to act as though that were true. "You can say you are committed to safety but that does not really mean anything. A real commitment to safety means a major cultural change in our business," Jacobs says. Spanswick adds: "It's not something that will happen in five minutes. This is a major programme."

To bring about this "major cultural change" Lend Lease has brought in safety consultant JMJ Associates, which advises the petrochemical and nuclear industries. It also pulled Jacobs, one of Bovis' most senior project directors, from his project work and asked him to concentrate entirely on improving safety. "Some people said 'you can't afford to do that, he's too busy'," says Spanswick. "But this demonstrates how important this issue is to us."

JMJ was appointed last July. Bovis has initially hired the firm for a year (the fees are about £3m per annum) with a view to extending it for a further two. JMJ's basic premise is that the industry's concentration on preventing accidents is flawed. "The problem with it is that you can only prevent what you predict," says Jacobs, who adds that even with all the proper procedures and processes, accidents still happen. What managers and staff must do, JMJ and now Bovis argue, is take a creative leap and make thinking about safety so ingrained that it becomes second nature.

Spanswick says he is encouraged by the response from staff who have already attended JMJ workshops. "We are trying to get people to think 'what's the worst thing that can happen?'," he explains, before adding an example. "When I go around sites I ask someone lifting anything over other workers: 'Would you put your wife and family under that? If not, then why are you letting other people do it?' The time when people are most aware of safety is just after a major accident. We want that level of awareness without having the accident."

Spanswick and Jacobs stress the changes to their attitudes and practices since the process started. After 30 years in the business, Jacobs says he had the mentality that accidents were part of the job – an attitude he has now broken free of. "You get hardened to the idea that construction is dangerous. You have this belief that someone is going to get hurt, but it's not going to be me."

Spanswick insists that without company bosses taking the issue seriously, there is no way the message will get through to their staff. "I never thought I would say it, but I am behaving differently," he says. Spanswick and his fellow bosses now have to visit at least 40 sites a year specifically for safety (previously, Spanswick went to about 12). He also now phones every site where a major incident occurred (about eight a week, he estimates).

What we are saying is that we will measure ourselves against the zero incident mark. We are saying that one incident is one too many

John Spanswick

"I talk to the project manager. I don't give him a bollocking. We talk through the accident to see if there are any solutions or lessons from it. We can then spread those lessons around the construction world."

Spanswick lists some practical examples of the new safety drive. The firm has outlawed the use of block-and-tackle (lifting pulley system) on sites as there is an inherent risk of materials or equipment falling. "It's an archaic practice," he says. Bovis has also heightened guard-rails on scaffolds beyond legal requirements and bolstered perimeter protection to reduce falls from height.

Spanswick is preaching his new beliefs to clients, subcontractors, consultants and fellow contractors. A meeting with the firm's preferred supply chain led to some signing up to the principles. "I am really impressed with the initial response we've had," says Spanswick.