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November 2, 2021

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What can we learn from design in the construction sector to manage psychosocial risks to enhance organisational design?

Hosking Associates, Director, Louise Hosking CMIOSH CEnvH MCIEH CMaPS PIEMA SIIRSM, discusses the important lessons businesses can learn from the design in the construction sector in improving psychosocial risk management and enhancing organisational design. 

louise hoskingI am a fan of the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations (CDM). The first Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM), released in 1994, created new principles which continue to strive for future-fit and integrated health and safety arrangements which add value to work in this sector.

When the spirit of the requirements is embraced it not only protects those involved in creating our built environment but also a much wider range of stakeholders involved in the ongoing use, maintenance, and repair of our buildings. The regulations have also embedded responsibilities across value chains creating expectations from the largest multi-nationals to the SMEs we all rely upon.  

Back in 1994, I was working for the Co-Operative as a young environmental health professional. I was a member of the project team, refurbishing existing stores and building new units. My role involved working alongside operational colleagues for existing stores, considering new designs with an understanding of how they operated.

I could see what worked well, and also less well, following accidents, and brought this knowledge to the project. As an environmental health professional, I would also consider workflows in regard to food safety, maintaining chill chains and keep relevant food products separated, often in restricted spaces. 

By considering the wider implications of design we created stores that were efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly. We were reducing risks at the source and, in some cases, eliminating them completely by clever design.

I still enjoy being involved in this type of work as it creates buildings that really work for their occupiers. 

The CDM Regulations have not been without controversy, including in recent times.

There have been many challenges from those within the construction sector who felt they were onerous and introduced bureaucracy. When the regulations were last reviewed in 2015 they removed the role of the CDM coordinator, making it clear that statutory duties belong to the risk “owner”. This means those within the design team making the day-to-day decisions.

The expectation is that risk-based choices will be made by those actively involved in the project at each step rather than by a separate function.

To achieve this, we need to upskill all professionals. The health & safety support crew must evolve into true leaders – coaching, inspiring and facilitating decisions which examine risk at source. The result is a project team which operates efficiently, in balance with varying conflicting pressures and distractions, using forward thinking health & safety to reduce risk now and in the future. 

The construction sector has shown us how clever design can make a difference. So, what can we learn from this as we navigate psychological health & safety?  

Economic downturn

The nature of the construction sector has always focused on narrow margins, tight deadlines, extensive value chains, long hours in remote locations, and complicated relationships all vying for attention. Add to this a global pandemic in a world which is constantly changing, and where client needs are continually shifting.

Construction is the first sector to suffer in an economic downturn and the last to recover. 

Anxiety and stress can be triggered in a work environment when people feel a lack of control, unsupported, where roles are unclear, relationships poor, and demands are high/low.

Wellbeing initiatives, support counselling, and resilience training are controls of last resort. For organisations to reduce psychosocial health & safety risks they must look at culture and how the organisation is designed. No amount of talking tools or support will help people working in an unhealthy work environment. 

In the same way that we have incorporated health & safety into the design of our built environment, we can use the same principles for organisational design. Starting with a risk assessment, identify psychological hazards, evaluate who is exposed and explore why.

Working with stakeholders, examine how the organisation operates in practice to find ways to improve the psychological health of people and also achieve greater efficiencies and more sustainable businesses. 

Good organisational design creates a frame that naturally reduces psychosocial risk by clarifying roles and processes. This allows people to do their best work in an inclusive environment where every voice is heard, aligned to a common set of values which create trust.  

Just like a construction project there must be buy-in from the leadership team who, in turn, consider how their people are feeling. Leaders know when they are prioritising profit over people and putting them under pressure in the drive for more.

Leaders set the tone and the culture of an organisation and if health & safety is a priority then leaders must care about feedback. Leaders know when they have done nothing with feedback. If those in charge cannot hear, and are unaware of reasons for sickness absence, feedback from exit interviews and results from surveys, they must take steps to find out. As with all health & safety, there is no defence in law to say you did not know. 

Construction is a predominantly male-dominated sector. 

Direct, commanding management styles and hierarchical structures may lead to a workforce less inclined to talk about how they feel.

Command, control and coercion can appear to be quicker and easier. This approach may “fix” an immediate problem, but is it time to embrace a different way of working?  

Organisational design, which is people-centred, means managing workloads, collaborative working styles, flexible working, positive communication styles, inclusivity, proactive training programs, and fair value chain management. It is not just about having policies and procedures but walking the talk, being open and honest about where the organisation is now, looking at where it would like to be and creating a road map to achieve this led by a similarly inclusive board. 

Soft skills, coaching, and modern leadership styles are far from soft – they are our new #PowerSkills which will enable us to navigate this time in history. This can be challenging for leaders who have succeeded by embracing a very different style. It takes courage and introspection to consider if the current organisational design really has been created to fit people. This takes a different type of language and behaviour at all levels.  

So, my challenge is for those who have embraced using design to reduce or eliminate risk to work closely with HR colleagues to share these transferable skills to consider organisational design. It really is all about the humble risk assessment, the hierarchy of risk control, and true collaboration within teams. 

When we embrace diversity of thought we can make better decisions, and when we make better decisions in health & safety we have the ability to save more lives and reduce ill-health.

It takes a leap of faith to embrace the grey space between the black and the white, to break down silos, and to start from a position of “Yes!”.

Fire safety: Making buildings safer

In this episode of the Safety & Health Podcast, we drop in to a recent FIREX webinar, which looked at the legislative and systemic changes required in fire safety, and the wider building sector, to ensure buildings are made safer for occupants.

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