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November 22, 2011

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Building firm embraces its ground force

A recognition that worker involvement could help when bidding for contracts, as well as an incident on one of its flagship building projects, provided a double impetus for Manchester-based Bardsley Construction to reinvigorate its health and safety culture, by setting up a formal process for worker consultation and engagement.
A medium-sized building company operating in the housing and public sectors, Bardsley Construction controls around 15 projects at any one time. It employs about 100 joiners, bricklayers and labourers, and manages around 300 contractor-employed workers.
Worker involvement in policy-making had traditionally been a thorny issue for the company, with senior management wary of a dilution of control. Parts of the organisation were conscious that it was not providing a realistic forum for workers to express concerns or advise management of deficiencies, or better ways of working.
Increasingly, the question of consultation arose while tendering for work and the company was struggling to answer this question satisfactorily. Consequently, it identified that a formal framework was needed, which could be tailored to suit the needs of both the company and its workforce.
Reps and meetings
Health and safety director John Thorley enlisted the help of UCATT safety advisor Billy Baldwin to construct a framework built on the best ideas from the HSE’s ‘Safe & Sound at Work – Do Your Bit’ campaign. A health and safety consultation committee was created, comprising site labourers, contract managers, office-based employees and management. Site-level safety representatives were elected to liaise between the workforce and management on a volunteer basis, and to participate in the committee’s monthly meetings.
The representatives, who receive a financial remuneration to reflect the value of their role, attended the HSE’s two-day Worker Involvement training course.
“One of the most important aspects of engaging workers in health and safety activities is to gain their trust and understanding of the subject and how it will affect them,” outlined Billy. “We achieved this by clearly stating our aims, emphasising the full support of senior management, and explaining that the workers’ roles and subsequent activities would not be imposed.”
Committee meetings, which are often attended by local HSE inspectors, focus on a different construction project each time. “This gives project managers an opportunity to ‘show off’ their sites and share good practice with their peers,” explained John.
Safety reps now accompany safety professionals on project inspections, a move that affirms their position and clearly demonstrates to the workforce that the company supports and empowers them in the role.
During committee meetings, the reps are asked to provide an account of their activities in the last month. Their reports highlight the situations in which they have used their training and managed a situation to a satisfactory conclusion. Already, there are numerous examples of safety-rep intervention, encompassing such issues as quick-hitch devices, re-induction of contractors, faulty stepladders, etc.
Not all items discussed at meetings result in tangible improvements; some simply result in explanations of why the company does things the way it does. However, this aspect of communication is seen as crucial to gaining workers’ trust and commitment.
Added John: “The success of the consultation committee has been largely down to the fact that it belongs to the workforce, which sets the agenda, and not management. Directors, other than those in health and safety, are barred from meetings.”
The stronger link between management and front-line workers has led to: a reduction in accidents; an increase in compliance with legislation; an increased sense of worth and pride among the representatives; and empowerment of the workforce.
In addition, productivity has improved; more work has been secured for the business; the use of plant and machinery has become more effective; materials wastage has been reduced; and previously concealed operational inefficiencies have now been revealed.
It is still early days, but Bardsley Construction has not had to report any accidents under RIDDOR this year, which might indicate that incident severity has generally reduced. Crucially, the workforce is comfortable around members of the safety team and more willing to engage with them.
Worker engagement and consultation may not be a cure for every problem, but it is, nevertheless, a hugely important component in Bardsley’s health and safety culture.

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