Improving safety

Forty people died in the construction industry in 2019/20, up from a record low of 30 in 2018/19. The increase in construction fatalities comes as work-place deaths across Great Britain decreased to the lowest number on record. Matt Powell-Howard shares his experiences and thoughts about how site management can play a significant role in overcoming these statistics

Before I joined NEBOSH I worked as HSE Manager for a large buildings and aggregates supplier. We expected managers and supervisors to undertake site inspections and these were logged against their KPIs. It was one of my responsibilities to make sure these site inspections happened and that the KPIs were met. But what about the quality of those inspections? That wasn’t recorded – if our KPI numbers were met then my bosses were happy.

Thankfully, my professional practice has grown significantly since then – and so has our profession as a whole, much to the benefit of workers around the world.

Yet, as the statistics suggest, the construction industry is a tough one. The multiple sites, many thousands of workers, high numbers of contractors, the high hazard work, strict budgets and ever-present deadlines make it a challenging sector. But, for me, the key to unlocking even greater health and safety improvements lies with site managers and supervisors.

Of course, there are safety professionals but site manager roles have a huge range of influences – they know the work well, they have the ability to communicate with the workers on the ground and they set the priorities.

But these are also some of the busiest and most high-pressure roles on site. They also have to meet deadlines and budgets and report to senior leaders who may be further removed from the reality of that job or project. So where does that leave health and safety?

If we can give construction managers the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ to really influence the safety culture in their teams then the construction industry can build on the great progress it has already made and reignite a downward trend in those health and safety statistics.

When making the case for health and safety the strongest argument is always that it can save lives. You would think there is no better reason than that, but sometimes other things get in the way and we lose focus or become complacent. It’s human nature – ‘it will be quicker or cheaper if I ‘just’ do this’.

Research shows that by changing the way they do things businesses can save time, save money and be more resilient – a term more relevant than ever before as I write this during the Covid-19 pandemic – by doing things in a more safety conscious way.

One of the things I often hear by people outside of the profession is that ‘health and safety is for people with clipboards and boxes to tick’. Actually, health and safety is for everyone – every person on a site has a role to play in keeping it safe for themselves and for others. If site managers can influence every worker to take personal responsibility, then a positive safety culture can develop – and that is very powerful indeed.

Where to start? We should not assume that site managers are confident talking about safety so there is a corporate responsibility to equip them with the tools they need to really influence their workers. These could include:

  • Giving managers and supervisors confidence to ask the right questions
    One of the Health & Safety Executive’s best-selling products are the Safe Deal Playing Cards – sounds simplistic but they are really handy to get conversations started.
  • Focus on quality
    Remember those KPIs I mentioned at the start of this article – move the focus to quality conversations and meaningful information rather than a number or ticked box. Then really listen to what your workers are telling you – the best ideas usually come from the people actually doing the work.
  • Use your safety professionals
    Regulations require that every employer shall have access to competent safety persons – ask them for advice, coaching and guidance, it’s what they are there for.
  • Leadership
    Set the standard – what is and is not acceptable? Business leaders need to prioritise their people and give site managers the power to challenge their teams and their leaders and to stop work if it’s unsafe or could potentially cause damage to an individual’s health.
  • Training
    The right education and training gives people skills and confidence they can use in the workplace. NEBOSH has specialist construction and leadership certificates for people with wider responsibilities as well as shorter awareness courses for front line workers – there really is something for everyone.

This list is not exhaustive but hopefully it should provide construction leadership teams with a starting point to recognise and nurture the potential of their site managers.

Matt Powell-Howard is Head of Strategy for NEBOSH. NEBOSH is a leading global organisation, which provides health, safety and environmental qualifications. Its internationally recognised qualifications help to raise the competence workers at all levels in the workplace. Since its inception in 1979 over 400,000 people from around the world have gained a NEBOSH qualification.
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