Editor, UBM

February 17, 2016

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In conversation with Heather Bryant – taking health seriously

Heather BryantIn January, 120 CEOs within the construction industry came together to discuss the ever-present problem of health, at the Health in Construction Leadership Group, chaired by Clive Johnson, Land Securities.

SHP’s Roz Sanderson  spoke to Heather Bryant, Balfour Beatty’s UK health and safety director about the importance of health and the steps Balfour Beatty is putting in place to improve the health of its employees. 

The ‘health’ in health and safety has only come to the forefront in the last few years – what steps has Balfour Beatty been taking to improve the health and wellbeing of its employees?

The process of understanding health implications in the industry is long-term, educational and only recently been published. Safety has always been a known factor of risk and as such has been at the forefront of industry activities to ensure workplaces are safe for all employees. Now, the industry is aware of the health issues as a wider topic and we are actively seeking to improve on this, as we did with safety.

Here at Balfour Beatty we take the issue of occupational health very seriously:

  1. We have a permanent in-house occupational hygienist, one of the few currently in the construction industry to do so.
  2. We ensure that we take a holistic approach in our actions to tackle health problems in the industry.

Every quarter we run proactive, educational topics where we highlight one particular health issue and share best practice with all employees through a variety of channels. We engage all our workforce in this education and encourage our subcontractors to get actively involved. Last year we covered Dust, Control of Hazardous Substances, Hand Arm Vibration and Musculo Skeletal Disorders. This year we will include noise and summer working issues (skin cancer, dust and dehydration) as well as building further on our HAVs and Dust campaigns. We have also reviewed and re-launched our occupational health programme.

As well as employees and sub-contractors, construction projects can directly impact the health of local residents through the impact on air quality. How does Balfour Beatty tackle this issue and engage the local community on projects?

Many construction processes emit dusts, fumes, vapours or gases into the air and these, if not properly controlled, can be significant causes of breathing problems and lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), of which chronic bronchitis and emphysema are common types.

By eliminating and managing health risks on our sites at Balfour Beatty, what we do to protect our workforce automatically means we are protecting others. Working with communities is important to us and we have a blueprint that sets the strategy and vision for our sites.

In addition, we are also members of the Considerate Contractors Scheme and have won a number of awards as part of this.

What kind of targets does Balfour Beatty have in place for instigating health initiatives?

Balfour Beatty operates a zero harm initiative, which extends to health as well as safety.

We also use a number of leading and lagging indicators. Our leading indicators include steps taken to raise awareness and up-skill our workforce (including our subcontractors) on the quarterly health topics identified in our Zero Harm Calendar. We also monitor and promote staff engagement via our observations – where we encourage and track best practice, innovation and where we need to intervene. This applies to health just as much as safety. We also include health topics in our site leaders tours – and monitor these.

Bigger companies have a moral responsibility to lead the way with initiatives like this one, how does Balfour Beatty plan to influence, include and help companies without the infrastructure in place for the smaller companies to do it themselves?

In the UK every year, across all industries, there are one hundred times more deaths caused by occupational disease than accidents. In the construction sector, there were 35 fatal injuries to UK construction workers in 2014/15 yet in the same period there were 3,500 deaths from occupational cancer alone, and many more from other diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

These statistics don’t just apply to large companies, such as Balfour Beatty. The issues highlighted and brought to discussion by the Health in Construction Leadership Group affect all those involved in the construction industry: international companies, SMEs, industry bodies, contractors, down to the individual.

We acknowledge that a holistic approach is needed to ensure that we successfully and totally eradicate ill health from the workplace. This is an issue we will tackle together and why we support the health in construction leadership group ad events like yesterday. As part of this we will also make our materials and expertise available to others along with other HCLG organisations.

We will work closely with our supply chain and all those we have a relationship with, to ensure that the lessons learnt, processes and action plans as a result of today’s meeting are shared with the whole industry.

 What is the ‘next asbestos’ in your view?

At the time of use, industry was not aware of the health implications in using asbestos. With the knowledge we have now, we recognise this hazard and are acting accordingly to tackle this, and we will continue to do so.

With any working material used in construction, we stringently assess the health hazards as far as can be known today. This ensures that all building products used in the industry do not pose a health risk to those working in the industry and also to the members of the public who then go on to live or work around those materials.

Dust, especially silica dust, is still a big issue for our industry. We can eliminate a lot through good design and planning – removing the need for activities such as scabbling. Our sites are rising to the challenge of ‘binning the broom’ and even eliminating drilling

Heather is Balfour Beatty’s UK H&S Director. She is responsible for a team of over 250 safety professionals across the UK and Ireland helping the company drive towards Zero Harm – zero accidents and ill-health caused by our work activities.

Heather joined Balfour Beatty from the Health and Safety Executive, the national independent regulator for work-related health and safety, in September 2014 where she was HM Chief Inspector of Construction responsible for strategy, policy and field operations across Great Britain.

Prior to this, Heather was the HSE Divisional Director responsible for all general field operations across London and the East and South East of England.

This is the second interview in the series, catch up with Judith Hackitt’s thoughts on occupational health in construction and her hopes for the next 15 years.


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

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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