Why Focusing on Safety Performance Can Enable Construction to Bounce Back

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

image of a construction project

The UK construction sector is critical to the future of the economy. Despite the latest PMI figures and what was labelled a “total collapse” of the construction sector, its importance is beyond economic and is fundamental to addressing the social injustices created by decades of regional centralisation. Witness how “levelling-up” entered our discourse through the end of 2019 and into the first few months of this year.

Along with services, manufacturing and tourism, the construction industry is one of the four main pillars of the UK economy and easily the most complex from a ‘build’ standpoint. It’s characterised by the build of one-off ‘products’ (there’s no car assembly line here) using complex supply chains not least in terms of the multi-level contractors required to fulfil projects.

As such, it’s no surprise that safety performance has been a challenge historically and remains so to this day. Over the past four years, construction ranks 4th worst in terms of worker fatality rates with a ranking of 5th worst for non-fatal injuries to employees.

4 Year Fatality Rates by Sector

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Non-fatal injury data by sector

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Note the use of the terms ‘worker’ and ‘employee’ above. The fatality rates include the self-employed (construction ranks 4th worst) whereas the non-fatal injury rates are for employees only (construction ranks 5th worst). The implication is that safety performance for the self-employed in construction is worse than for the employed (which is often the case in all sectors) but also that it is disproportionately worse in construction when compared to all sectors. This is borne out by the 2018/19 fatality rates for the self-employed in construction which at 1.37 fatalities per 100,000 self-employed workers is 2nd worst behind agriculture.

The questions then are, “why is this the case?” and, “how can safety performance be improved given the changing world that construction will need to operate within?”

As we already stated above, construction is unique in its build of one-off products using massively complex supply chains including multi-level contractors. Traditional construction procurement practices further exacerbate the issues related to the use of multi-level contractors.

Whether those practices (construction contracts) are based on the design of an agent of the employer (e.g. an architect) or have design and build carried out by the prime contractor, there are disconnects at some level between designer/contractor/sub-contractors in terms of the design/cost/risk of the project. Those disconnects and the price/delivery focus of project bids inevitably impinge on the safe delivery of the overall project. Essentially, not every party throughout the supply chain is aligned, or even bought into, the fundamental design/cost/risk parameters of the project.

An inherently risky (from a safety standpoint) sector is, thus, made riskier by these traditional construction practices.

So, what measures can the construction sector take to improve safety while at the same time improving the deliverability of projects (cost/time/risk) – even in these uncertain times?

We see 3 immediate opportunities:

  • improved safety knowledge transfer across contractors/sub-contractors
  • better overall contractor compliance and management
  • collaborative procurement

The first is really a subset of the second but is worth calling out separately for a couple of reasons. Firstly, recent analysis of the Taiwanese construction industry showed that “a primary cause of occupational accidents is on-site workers not having proper or even adequate safety knowledge and awareness, leading to them failing to employ safety measures, equipment, or behaviour to protect themselves”. This could be applied to any sector but when you layer in the complexity of construction projects and the fluidity around the teams delivering those projects, knowledge transfer deserves particular focus.

While Taiwanese construction industry safety practices lag those in the UK, awareness/knowledge transfer is still a major issue here.

A 2018 survey by IOSH revealed that “one in four construction workers have been exposed to asbestos, while two-thirds do not know that it can cause cancer”. The HSE reinforces this, “construction has the largest burden of occupational cancer amongst the industrial sectors. It accounts for over 40% of occupational cancer deaths and cancer registrations”.

Rather than simply look at the numbers and causes of injuries and fatalities on our construction sites, a failure to create awareness and transfer knowledge might be the root cause of many of these accidents.

Starting with ensuring that only competent workers are able to request a permit-to-work, through site inductions, automatic clash checks and dynamic risk assessments, it is now time for the benefits of technology to be leveraged in improving safety performance while reducing cost, risk and time.

This video explains how e-permits delivers contractor compliance and safe working together with the efficiencies that will enable the construction industry to bounce back. It’s worth noting that the e-permits system and underlying technology was devised and developed in support of the original Canary Wharf construction.

The third opportunity identified is collaborative procurement which avoids the contract issues described above by enabling partnering throughout the supply chain during the procurement process. This deserves a post to itself and is something we’ll look to cover in the coming weeks. Suffice to say, the concept of involving those who can add value (such as specialist contractors) early in the design/procurement process has to be beneficial not just to the successful delivery of the project but also to the safety of all workers involved.

Yes, construction activity has hit an all time low but this is a blip. Construction will lead the country out of the current dire economic situation and this can be done without sacrifices to worker safety. Indeed, focussing on safety performance comes with productivity gains which, married with a more collaborative approach to procurement, can deliver the optimal solution in terms of design/cost/risk.

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