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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
September 20, 2006

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Getting change into the culture

The construction industry must change its culture and become more concerned about the health and safety of staff if it is to continue building on its success.

So said, Stephen Williams, the HSE’s chief inspector of construction, who added that developing a better safety culture, as well as improved management of risks on site, is essential in order to reduce the death toll on UK construction sites. He said: “We’ve got to move the culture to allow anybody to challenge unsafe acts, and we need to make sure people are competent to recognise unsafe acts when they occur.”

A similar view was put forward by Neville Betts, past president of the Safety Institute of Australia, who spoke about his work preparing Sydney for the Olympic Games in 2000: “From the day I arrived on site I started talking about creating a safety culture. We created the mantra ‘zero tolerance to hazards and zero tolerance to unsafe behaviours’.”

With workers from a number of different countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, Neville knew that “counting injuries wasn’t enough”, so he set each worker positive personal targets. And, he joked, as 60 per cent of the workers were Maori: “If I couldn’t talk rugby I’d have completely failed!”

Industry hangover?

Society’s problems can also affect an organisation’s culture, particularly when they are brought on to a construction site. Gerard Bennett, from EPIC Programme Ireland, spoke about the potentially disastrous impact of alcohol and drug-taking on a construction site.

“Ireland is top of the European league of drinkers and it costs us d2.2 billion of output per year in alcohol-related absence from work. 10 per cent of our population has a dependency on alcohol or drugs and 20 per cent abuse alcohol. Where do you find some of these people Monday to Friday? On a construction site, often operating dangerous machinery.”

Gerard said construction employers need to tackle the issue head on, starting with a proactive and supportive approach, which helps people realise the dangers of working while intoxicated. For repeat offenders, more severe sanction is necessary, including removal from site or even dismissal.

People before paperwork

Perhaps the most convincing call for cultural change in construction came from former roofer-turned-health and safety practitioner, Ian Whittingham MBE.

Ian, who broke his back after falling 25 feet from a roof in 1993, said practitioners have to remember that “health and safety is about people”, not paperwork. He explained: “I’ve got a massive problem with paperwork. You give one of the guys on site 30-40 pages to read and they’ll sign anything. I wish organisations would spend as much time educating the guys, giving them the skills to carry out their job properly, as they do on writing method statements.

“I also want to see more women coming into construction because they have a different attitude towards safety than men. If a scaffold isn’t safe, a woman won’t go on it.”

And Ian summed up the feelings of construction industry health and safety practitioners when he said: “My industry, construction, is fantastic. But we’ve got to stop the deaths and injuries and I believe the people in this room can change things. We can and will make a difference.”

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