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April 1, 2015

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Big ideas for smaller projects

olympics-227181_640by Steve Taylor

We’ve all read about the successes of large scale, high profile health and safety projects such as the RoSPA award winning safety performance of the London 2012 Olympic construction project, where the construction of the Olympic Park completed with an Accident Frequency Rate of just 0.17 per 100,000 hours – achieving less than half the construction industry average.

You may have also read about the ongoing Crossrail project’s ‘Target Zero’ initiative? (See SHP Aug 2014 ‘Peak Construction’) An ambitious ‘State of Mind’ for all project decisions which is ensuring safety is integrated into every nook and cranny of the project with the ultimate goal of ensuring a world class health and safety standard is achieved; Impressive stuff, but easy for a big fish!

As smaller business managers or safety professionals reading and researching these projects, we will no doubt feel captivated, impressed, and enthused but possibly also daunted by the sheer scale of these achievements and perhaps put off by the time, cost and effort required. Common excuses may include; “We don’t have the budget to implement safety in that way”, “Our projects are driven by time, we don’t have enough of it”, “Those big ideas are great but we can’t have that kind of thinking in our small project”. With the right approach, these big project ideas can translate into small project reality really easily and proportionately.

In the HSE’s own research report on worker involvement on the Olympic Park, some of the factors that enabled the success of the 2012 Olympic project were very simple concepts. It is highlighted that involving all workers in effective safety communications both up and down the chain of command was integral to the reduction in accident rates for the project. The irony of this particular success is that on smaller projects, which are inherently closer knit, worker involvement is far easier to achieve with closer proximity of the workers. What it does require though is that we apply big project thinking to all of our regular interactions.

A simple strategy to achieve worker involvement may include regularly requesting improvement suggestions and always providing feedback to every suggestion that is received, implementing a genuine no blame culture to ensure that workforce safety communications and incident reporting are not hindered but instead deemed necessary to ensure the safety of the workforce. Also the use of reward and recognition programmes to encourage safety communications is a tried and tested success story, but giving out rewards is expensive right? Not necessarily, the rewards don’t have to be extravagant we are just using them as a simple behavioural tool that will place a positive frame of mind alongside safe thinking (even just recognition or a ‘great to see you tidying as you go’ will feel rewarding). Too often we focus on getting out in the work area to find examples of non-compliance, how often can we say that we regularly look to reward examples of good practice? In reality, rewarding good practice can be a really effective way to achieving worker buy in and involvement.

Another factor in the Olympic success, and perhaps the most daunting of them all, was the unprecedented proactive and preventative approach to the project occupational health provision. A project specific occupational health service was set up as part of a commitment to protecting the health and safety of workers on the Olympic build. It offered support to managers from a team of occupational health professionals working in an integrated way, to prevent and treat occupational ill-health, and promote healthy behaviours. Clearly it will be very unlikely that on all but the larger scale projects such a provision would be considered reasonably practicable, but does that really mean that we cannot apply the same big project thinking to smaller projects? Of course not!

As a workforce we are already generally very good at ensuring the ‘safety’ side of our health and safety responsibilities get the attention required; we can identify situations where there is a risk to safety and pragmatically suggest a solution to ensure prevention or reasonable risk reduction. What we have to improve on, is our perception of just how important the ‘health’ side is.

For example, the HSE informs us that around 8,000 cancer deaths and 13,500 newly diagnosed cancer cases each year could be attributed to workplace factors. Consider these numbers in comparison with the number of workers fatally injured in 2013/14 at a much lower (but not low enough) 133, and you will quickly identify the need for a change in mindset. But how can we compare with the provision available on big projects?

First and foremost it should begin with our own awareness and understanding of what health issues may be presented to our workforce from the project scope of works. Once this has been identified we should tailor our communications, inductions, and toolbox talks to properly inform operatives of these risks, paying particular attention to the importance of early symptom identification and reporting. By informing our workforces of the risks, workers will be able to identify and even pre-empt possible ill health and accident events which would have otherwise caused delays in our programme of works.

We should also look at the way in which we are currently presenting this information and try to present it such a way that our workforce can engage and enjoy receiving it! By simply doing our research, knowing the subject, being confident and presenting it in an engaging, dare I say fun, style we can easily share some the success of the big project thinking in occupational health awareness.

The old cliché of ‘change is never easy’ has never been more relevant than when trying change the approach to safety. It’s likely that a large percentage of a construction project workforce will be sourced from external contractors which alone will create some communication challenges, or perhaps the challenges lay closer to home in trying to convince peers of the benefits of big project thinking. My advice for these scenarios is to remain focused and consistent, if there is a poor uptake in reward schemes ask for feedback as to why and act upon it. If your peers remain unconvinced, don’t fight against them. Help them to see the possible benefits of what you are trying to achieve, perhaps aim some targeted communications their way, it may just be that they lack a full understanding of what the hazards and likely consequences posed by the project works are.

Do try and avoid being overly simplistic or even patronising with your safety communications and conversations. Communications, inductions, and toolbox talks should be specifically targeted to your workforce taking into account the knowledge that your workers will already have; try telling an experienced worker how to do the job they’ve done for 30 years and you may quickly lose not only the trust of that one worker but his peer group. One simple way to achieve this is by ensuring your workers get an opportunity to have some input during these times. By (gently) encouraging the workforce to share experiences with other workers during a toolbox talk or induction you will be able engage further with your group and provide new learning opportunities for everyone. This will also give you some opportunities to flex your grey matter and provide safety responses to the given scenarios which, if well thought through and proportionate, will help you to gain the trust of the workers by showing them what your made of (no ‘jobsworth’ ‘elf and safety around here)!

Quite simply, don’t be put off by scale and costs, carry out your own research and specifically look at the core factors that made these high profile project safety stories successful, then consider how these core principles can be applied to your projects.

  • If you are the owner: the sky is the limit lead by example.
  • If you are the manager/safety practitioner: get the owner and peer group on board by educating them of the potential project gains of big project thinking and start your research.
  • If you are another duty holder: start your consultation, engage with your peer group and provide feedback.

By applying big project thinking onto our smaller projects we too can leave our employees and contractors with a safety legacy of our own.

Do you have a ‘Big Idea’ safety success story of your own? Share it with us on: Twitter: @AMHS_TWEETS and Facebook: www.facebook.com/AMHealthSafety .

Steve Taylor is a consultant for AMHS Ltd

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