A lengthy government report on health and safety has received a lukewarm reception from the industry. Elaine Knutt asks construction firms to fill in some of the gaps and put forward their own ideas. Illustrations by Spencer Wilson

What do you get when you ask the former chair of ACAS to spend seven months examining all the evidence, reading the literature and preparing a report on the underlying causes of fatalities in the construction industry? According to the decidedly mixed reaction to Rita Donaghy’s One Death Is Too Many report for the Department of Work and Pensions, you either get a thoroughgoing analysis of the problems followed by an equally exhaustive list of recommendations, or a report with few new insights and a ‘to do’ list that lacks detail.

Shaun Davis, Rok’s director of health and safety, was interviewed by Donaghy as part of her investigations, and believes the final report draws authority from its breadth of focus. ‘Donaghy has spoken to a number of stakeholders, small, medium and large, to get a wide perspective. So you’re getting a much more rounded take on safety performance,’ he says. ‘Lots of studies go down one route, such as behavioural safety, but she’s done a widespread, detailed analysis.’

Barhale Construction’s director of health and safety, Peter Dobson, however, feels that even such a wide-ranging report still has important omissions. ‘Donaghy has stated the obvious: most of these recommendations are already known by the industry,’ he says. ‘And if her brief was to examine the underlying causes of fatalities, she should probably have examined serious accidents, the majority of which are only a second or inch from becoming a fatality.’

There’s also a feeling that Donaghy underestimated both the progress made by the industry, and the deep feelings of shock and shame that accompany news of every fatal accident. ‘A contractor working in a site environment has a different viewpoint from someone who doesn’t get out at the sharp end,’ says Vince Busk, head of health and safety at ISG. ‘Should the investigations not have been carried out in conjunction with people who live on the front line everyday, dreading the phone call about a fatality on site?’

So CM has decided to flesh out the Donaghy report, asking frontline practitioners and university academics to highlight her omissions, add detail to her recommendations and put forward their alternative ideas for reducing accidents (see boxes). Suggestions were not hard to find: a supporting study to One Death Is Too Many by a team from Loughborough University included many ideas not incorporated into the finished report, and large and medium-sized contractors have implemented many practical strategies that are already having an impact.

As Barhale’s Dobson points out, one issue that has been downplayed in Donaghy’s report is the importance of studying non-fatal accidents. Although many responsible contractors monitor and study all accidents, there is no legal obligation for construction employers to record or investigate their near misses, and no mechanism for gathering the data on an industry-wide basis.

Vince Busk quotes a study by an American insurance company that found there was a ratio of 600 minor accidents, 30 incidents of equipment or property damage and 10 minor injuries to one fatal accident. ‘There will be warnings prior to having a fatality, and capturing the data on this is something we don’t do,’ says Busk. ‘We need to take proactive measures to record the data, and maybe legislation to enforce it. Near misses are a warning sign that a safety system is not working correctly.’

So is there a case for an industry-wide system to record and study near misses? Alistair Gibb, professor of construction engineering management at Loughborough University and co-author of the external research report commissioned by Donaghy, supports this idea. ‘I think there would be a benefit to a more standardised procedure if the industry could develop it, rather than a top-down initiative [from the government]. A simple questionnaire could, for example, record whether the operatives involved were migrant workers, or show their training record.’

HSE statistics on fatal accidents, meanwhile, present a black-and-white picture with little of the shading that would help the industry understand the underlying causes. ‘The statistics aren’t fine-tuned enough to identify all the factors that contributed to the accident,’ says Gibb. ‘We ought to be far more sophisticated in identifying where those fatalities are and resolving those particular problems.’

While the Donaghy report goes into great detail on the role of unions in site safety, many believe that an even more influential group – clients – was left sitting on the sideline. ‘Major clients can significantly influence performance and drive the health and safety agendas of their contractors,’ says Barhale’s Dobson. ‘They can also control capability by setting higher and higher health and safety standards as part of their pre-qualification for frameworks,’ he adds. ‘If you benchmark the best through KPIs then set that as the target for others to reach, you get an upward spiral driving performance.’

Likewise, Donaghy’s report makes little mention of the CDM Regulations, in force since 1996 and updated in 2007. Many believe the regulations could prevent more accidents if enforced more rigorously. ‘We should be concentrating on designing out risk. As contractors, we still find we’re having to educate designers,’ says ISG’s Busk. ‘The CDM co-ordinator [whose role includes co-ordinating the health and safety aspect of designs] should be the first person the client takes on board, and the HSE needs to enforce that role and give it a higher profile.’

Donaghy’s suggestion to extend Building Regulations to cover health and safety has been raised before and even been the subject of pilot studies (see CM February). Phil Hammond, director of business development at trade association Local Authority Building Control, says that an obligation to submit a health and safety plan alongside a design submission could help raise standards, especially in the SME sector. But he adds: ‘The mechanisms are really unclear. Would local authorities get extra resources for training and staff then ring-fence them? And would some contractors gravitate towards [private sector] approved inspector services that wouldn’t have health and safety enforcement powers?’

Item 8 on Donaghy’s list refers to reducing the number of pre-qualification systems contractors have to contend with, such as Achilles, Bovis’s Building Confidence, Link-up and CHAS. ‘To all intents and purposes they’re asking the same questions. It needs rationalisation to reduce the burden on big and small companies,’ says Martin Worthington, director of health, safety and environment at Morgan Ashurst.

However, academics go further. Billy Hare, a senior lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, endorses the Loughborough report’s suggestion that an HSE scheme alone should pre-qualify and license contractors to trade. ‘An HSE-licensed system could level the playing field. There would be a cost burden in setting it up, but we think that could be a workable recommendation.’

While Donaghy talks of ‘positive duties’ on directors to develop health and safety systems and the importance of setting up consultative frameworks for operatives, Hare and his colleague professor Iain Cameron believe that another key group has been overlooked – site supervisors and middle managers. ‘A lot don’t come through higher education, they get promoted from the tools. But the CITB’s five-day health and safety management course presupposes management skills. Your average site manager doesn’t have those skills, so the course is hanging on nothing.’

Donaghy makes it clear in her report that she deliberately concentrated on the UK, but the Loughborough report includes ideas that have worked in other countries and could translate here. For instance, Swedish contractors are convinced that a ‘Silent Book’ safety manual that illustrates risks via cartoon characters rather than bossy injunctions has helped cut the accident rate among non-Swedish speaking migrant workers.

In Hong Kong, the government flexes its muscles as a major client. After a fatality, whether on a publicly-funded project or a private one, a government review panel calls the contractor’s chief executive to account. The company then has to submit a report on the underlying causes of the accident to a government committee, which can impose sanctions such as a temporary ban on tendering for government work.

‘The Hong Kong government is using its power as an employer to make its point,’ says Gibb. ‘An exact replication probably wouldn’t work here – it has a lot to do with the Chinese concept of losing “face”. But the government could play a stronger role here to say it’s taking this seriously, perhaps by making the CEO face a panel.’

Among Donaghy’s 28 recommendations, there are many good ideas that could contribute to a safer industry. There is also a feeling that 28 constitutes a poorly-aimed scattergun, and that a lower number would have had a greater chance of hitting their target. The report also criss-crosses a wide territory without touching on several key issues such as clients, near-misses and management training.

But if Donaghy had focused more attention on the industry’s frontline, perhaps her report would have had more originality and authority.

Practical Idea #1

Last year Rok changed the job title ‘safety adviser’ to ‘safety coach’. ‘People are more inclined to seek their advice, and not see us as the people who “do safety”,’ says health and safety director Shaun Davis. ‘In football, the coach is the guy who gives the team talks and helps them to perform the best on the field. We’ve reduced the accident frequency rate by 50% since we made the change. We’re more accessible, so people come to us with problems and we work them through, in a coaching style. We’re getting huge improvements in accident investigation, and getting much more positive information from it.’

Practical Idea #2

An incentive scheme underpins ISG’s Take 5 safety initiative, which asks workers to assess and analyse the risks involved in any task before embarking on it. When a safety adviser visits a site, workers who have followed the five steps are entered into a monthly prize draw. But should workers be rewarded for doing something that should happen anyway? ‘We’re good at disciplining people, but not good at thanking them for doing a good job – that’s what’s missing in the industry,’ responds ISG’s Vince Busk. Prizes, sometimes donated by clients, range from vouchers for free breakfast in the site canteen to plasma TVs and an all-expenses trip to Disneyland for a family of four.

Practical Idea #3

Everyone in the company, from directors to site operatives, is trained to take safety into
consideration with every decision they take. On every site, a volunteer is trained as a VOICE rep, gathering the Views of Operatives In the Construction Environment. ‘We show them how to intervene in risky situations, and how to ask open rather than closed questions,’ explains Martin Worthington, director of health, environment and diversity. To improve the flow of information to the VOICE rep, near misses are now called ‘learning events’. ‘We’ve seen a massive increase in the number of events fed back to us. It’s a good indicator of a more open culture,’ says Worthington.

Practical Idea #4

Four years ago, Barhale started to record its near misses – broadly defined as events that didn’t happen, such as traffic infringements or not wearing PPE – on white boards on every site. Last year, it asked staff to notify events that fall below the company’s standards on environmental and financial performance. ‘We’re trying to show the cross-relationships – for example an oil leakage leads to loss of money, contamination and a slip hazard,’ says director of health and safety Peter Dobson. ‘We’re trying to tackle all three together in a performance management model. It’s becoming embedded in the way our guys think – all the graphs are moving in the right direction.’

Practical Idea #5

HSE statistics show that around two thirds of fatal accidents occur on sites with fewer than 15 operatives, where the contractor is likely to be an SME and clients are either small businesses or private homeowners. But Professor Alistair Gibb believes that current publicity campaigns leave contractors and clients in this sector untouched. ‘The majority of small traders are taking risks because the client wants to keep costs down, for instance by not paying for a scaffold. Where clients are members of the public, does the public understand?’ asks Gibb. ‘And for small contractors, maybe builders’ merchants could be used to get the message out there.’

Practical Idea #6

Many believe the low number of HSE construction inspectors – around 140 to cover the UK – results in poor enforcement of legislation. To boost its inspection power, Vince Busk suggests that the HSE uses the model of the Considerate Constructors’ inspection and audit system. Experienced site managers could be recruited and trained as ‘lay inspectors’ and carry out health and safety inspections to an HSE template. The scheme could be funded by attaching a fee to F10 notices on the commencement of works, banded according to the contract value of the project. ‘They wouldn’t have the same legal powers as HSE inspectors, but their reports would be reviewed by the HSE,’ says Rusk.