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Nick Warburton is former editor of SHP Magazine. He is currently working as a freelance journalist and as an account manager at Technical Publicity.
September 28, 2015

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Occupational health on the Northern Line Extension

Development at Nine Elms

Development at Nine Elms

The Northern Line Extension to Nine Elms and Battersea will link the areas to central London. Nick Warburton reports on the principal contractors’ prevention-led approach to occupational health.

Commuters that travel between Waterloo and Clapham Junction will be struck by the explosion in construction cranes from Nine Elms near Vauxhall down to the Battersea Power Station Development. Over the next five years, around 18,000 new properties will spring up along the river in what is one of London’s largest infrastructure developments.

But with local buses the only means of transport servicing both areas, the decision to extend the Northern Line from Kennington to Nine Elms and Battersea is the most practical solution. Construction of the two 3km tunnels is due to start in late 2016 and Transport for London (TfL) envisages that the new lines will become operational from early 2020.

Awarded the contract in 2014, the joint venture by Ferrovial Agroman and Laing O’Rourke (FLO) will focus on key occupational health risks.

“From the moment that we were in the running for the contract, the health side came on the agenda and we said there and then, ‘we’re going to drive this and we’re going to be a beacon for health in construction, particularly for large civil engineering infrastructure projects’,” explains Eamonn Burns, health and safety manager at FLO.

Both principal contractors recognised that the construction sector has traditionally focused heavily on safety risks, with an emphasis on workforce engagement and behavioural change. The industry’s track record on managing occupational health risks has been patchy. FLO was determined to this readdress this balance.

Drawing on the services of Park Health & Safety Partnership, which laid the foundations for the worker, workplace and wellbeing (3Ws) programme at the London Olympics and rolled it out further on Crossrail and other projects, FLO has developed a strategic occupational health strategy for delivering the Northern Line Extension.

The strategy sets out a well-defined set of priorities to ensure that a prevention-led approach runs throughout the project from design stage through to post-construction.

Eric Ball, an occupational hygienist from the Park Health & Safety Partnership, who is contracted to work on the project, has been involved in developing the occupational health strategy.

“The 3Ws strategy emerged from the Olympic Park and from there we developed systems around it,” he explains.

“When we started working on Crossrail, we said: ‘this is how it [3Ws] can be made to work when there are multiple occupational health providers working on a single project’.”

Ball claims that the Northern Line Extension is the first project where the principal contractor “sat down early enough in the process to say ‘it can be done, it has been done before and here is a clear strategy to roll out 3Ws to its maximum effect’.”

The overarching strategy comprises three stages – project set up, on-site delivery and evaluation. Since joining the FLO team in April, Ball has been immersed in the pre-construction phase – preparing procedures for noise and vibration, setting the COSHH registers and establishing the health risk register, which will be incorporated into the construction phase plan.

“We put health risk registers together for the Olympics and refined them on Crossrail but they were not always used by the projects in the way we envisaged so we’ve looked at how we can make this a more useable document.

“Now we’re incorporating it in the construction phase plan, which is a document that everyone looks at. The register will serve two purposes – it provides an outline of what the main occupational health risks are and also what needs to be done about them.”

Ball envisages that the set-up stage will be complete by October, by which point the Park Health team will have all of the project’s clinical procedures in place. He also expects to have the common standards for work processes and visual standards in place. Each one is key to the occupational health strategy.

“It’s quite easy for an occupational hygienist to come on to the project and be told, ‘occupational health is yours’,” he explains.

“Fine, but we are a small team and will be spread over four sites. We can’t read and write all of the risk assessment and method statements, so there has to be some element of empowering that among the workforce to take ownership of their own occupational health issues.”

This is an important point to emphasise about the strategy. While Ball is a specialist who can step in and assist on occupational health issues that the workforce is unsure about or doesn’t understand, for more obvious problems workers and their managers need to be more proactive.

“On the Olympics we had a small team and for the majority of on-site prevention work it was mostly myself and James Barnes (SHP August 2015, pages 34-37) and we couldn’t be everywhere,” he argues.

“One of the main improvements we saw was when we gave the workforce the training, the knowledge and the confidence to be able to make the decisions.”

As Ball explains, the common standards have been linked back to the health risk register deliberately to enable members of the team to identify the key issues and prioritise their time on site.

“Contractors will be able to use this information to form their risk assessments,” he continues. “The visual standards are for the guys on the ground showing them what good looks like for specific tasks.”

With the set-up nearing completion, the team’s next immediate priority will be to work with the designers to ensure that they eliminate the more serious occupational health risks in the design phase. From this, the team will update the original Crossrail designers’ guide for future infrastructure projects. It is one of the advantages of overseeing a design and build venture.

“A positive aspect of the Northern Line Extension is the design-element and us being able to sit down with the designers and say, ‘let’s not use this type of material. Let’s use this or look for something else’,” explains Burns.

“You need to get to the designers because what they tend to do is build things with products that they’ve used for years. The experience we’ve taken on board on occupational health management is opening a dialogue with designers to say – ‘that type of product you’ve selected is quite corrosive and hazardous to health’ and then to help them look for alternatives. That has made a huge difference on the side of design and build.”

Once construction of the two 3km tunnels commences late next year, the extension will be completed in stages. Two tunnel boring machines (TBMs) will be launched from near Battersea Power Station and will drive through to Nine Elms and then on to Kennington Park before linking up with the Kennington Loop, currently where Northern Line circles round to carry trains back to central London.

The proposed extension of the tube map. Photo credit: TfL

TfL plans two new tube stations at Nine Elms and Battersea as well as a cross-over box to enable trains to change rails and head back up the Northern Line.

The on-site delivery is the Northern Line Extension’s largest and most intensive phase. The principal contractors are a year away from the start of tunnelling work but have already begun to consider the risks.

“It’s important to do all that forward planning so that the workforce knows the score the moment that they come on site,” explains Ball.

“We really want people to take ownership of the occupational health and get as much assistance as they can to do it. As the project progresses, they are going to write more and more risk assessments and we need to have the tools ready for use.”

One strategy element is a health impact frequency rate, which Ball expects will get going next year when tunnelling starts.

Historically, the industry has concentrated on safety risks, focusing on workforce engagement and behavioural change but health is more challenging. Aside from manual handling injuries, workers don’t tend to take time off work for health-related issues.

“There is no such thing as occupational health near misses. You are either exposed or not exposed to the hazard. We first developed the health impact frequency rate for the Olympics, and have since taken it to Battersea,” argues Ball.

“This is something we are continuing to adapt and we really want to drive it down here and see if we can get further improvement.”

The team came up with a system whereby they would set aside a period of time each week to monitor workers’ activities and exposures. For instance, if a worker didn’t wear earplugs on a noisy activity, this would be classed a health impact. The team would then be able to calculate the rate at which these unprotected exposures occurred in the total number of working hours and come up with a frequency rate.

Over time, Ball says the team will be able to map out who is getting exposed to what, the numbers exposed and the reasons why workers are exposed.

“What that frequency rate does is give us an indication of the workers’ awareness of the issues and their awareness of the need to use controls. It gives an evaluation of how well the message of occupational health is getting through to the team.”

Interestingly, the focus on measuring and monitoring occupational health exposures doesn’t end with the work carried out on site.

“FLO has a duty of care to make sure that anyone that may have been exposed to a hazard is monitored for years to come, and there is an on-going project to continue this once workers have left the project,” says Burns.

FLO also wants to ensure that supply chain contractors are more closely involved with and aligned to the occupational health programmes.

“A key statement that came from FLO was that we want to extend this to our supply chain. We want to get this out into the wider construction industry,” he adds.

One way to enable this to happen is through the baseline occupational health maturity index, which will be introduced as soon as the main contractors come on site.

Ball explains how it works. “We want to take individual contractors and give them the same level of support that we would give a larger organisation not only in terms of service but also guidance – where are you and where are you going and where do you want to be?

“The hope is that any contractor that signs up will have a baseline occupational health maturity index where contractors are scored on a scale of 1-5 and the overall score reflects their awareness on occupational health issues.”

“The aim is that when contractors leave us they are more mature in the management of occupational health, and have improved themselves as a company,” says Ball, who adds that it also links to worker retention.

“It’s about being able to have these measurables to show that FLO has come up with a clear, defined direction of where we want to go with regards to the strategy, we’ve taken these steps and we’ve seen these improvements.”

FLO’s vision is that its strategic occupational health strategy will ensure that action around key risks will no longer be patchy.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people have been exposed to occupational health risks and hazards in our industry,” says Burns. “There’s probably a generation who will be affected by occupational health hazards from the past. What we are doing now with this strategy is building for the future.”

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We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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