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The value of health & safety in challenging times: a contractor's perspective

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This is the second of a series of articles examining the challenges facing the onshore wind energy sector in improving safety standards in a difficult economic climate.
The value of health & safety in challenging times: a contractor

The overall UK construction sector provided 28% of all work related fatal injuries in the UK 2009/10 [Construction Intelligence Report – HSE]. As the RIDDOR statistics from the industry [Annual Health and Safety Report (RenewableUK 2010)] demonstrate, wind-farm construction sites are particularly hazardous and are therefore challenging places in which to enforce safety standards.

This challenge becomes more acute when organisations are under pressure to cut costs. If health and safety is regarded as an added cost rather than as an investment in a cost-avoidance strategy, then it becomes a prime target for cost cutting. Therefore, in difficult economic times, an organisation’s ability to enforce and maintain safety standards on site often depends on the effectiveness of their safety leadership.

This article addresses the safety challenge from the contractors' perspective, presenting the views of David MacDonald, Civil Engineering Director of Global Construction (part of GE Group).

Competing pressures – health & safety vs profits

Most people, whether they are health & safety professionals or not, would argue that it is disingenuous for anyone to claim that health & safety is the number one priority of their business. The number one priority of any business must be its financial health: projects need to generate profit.

However, if profitability is achieved at the expense of health & safety (thus contributing to an unnecessary level of risk of injury to employees or to the public), then that is unacceptable. But people will always disagree over whether or not a business has crossed this line, depending on their role and interest. For an effective safety culture to develop, the voice promoting health & safety needs to be as strong as the voice promoting business profits.

Contractors may well argue that it is the client organisation that applies pressure to reduce costs to the detriment of health and safety. David MacDonald says “When there's less money around then it does become harder because everyone's focus is money. I have to be honest and say that producers often put profitability ahead of health & safety when awarding contracts. It's tough but there's nothing I can do about that.”

In his experience, the strong voice promoting health & safety has to come from his organisation. “I always challenge clients to stand by what they say about health & safety. We would walk away from business if we thought a potential client was putting pressure on us to reduce costs below which we can deliver the job safely.”

What forward thinking contractors and producers might both agree on, is that both organizations need to develop a relationship which encourages discussion and challenges unsafe acts. This is the key to maintaining the right balance between, on the one hand, sound finance and, on the other, effective safety management. Challenge and transparency are key to effective safety leadership.

Safety Leadership – putting in the effort

Continuous improvement means just that: health and safety has to be a priority every day with managers and supervisors making themselves visible, noticing what is happening on site, talking to workers, identifying and addressing problems as they arise, intervening and showing how important health and safety is to the organisation.

Directors and senior managers of any business would probably claim to take seriously their responsibility for leading on health and safety. However, what sets organisations such as Global Construction apart is their willingness to put in the effort, time and money needed to deliver this on the ground.

David continues: “I cannot speak for other contractors but we don’t look to our clients for a benchmark, we’re aware both as individuals and as a business what is expected from us and we want our business to set standards, not follow them.”

Safety Leadership – enforcing safety standards on wind-farm construction sites

Wind-farm construction sites are challenging places to work. As well as the geographical and meteorological dynamics, there is a mix of work cultures as different organisations and teams try to work alongside one another on site. They typically expose workers to some of the most common factors cited in construction site incidents (e.g. movement of heavy plant and vehicles, work at height, work in confined spaces).

David “it’s hard to make sure that everyone’s working safely all the time. There are particular attitudes that are difficult to shift. One of my experienced guys says ‘if you’ve been on the job 20 years then you know what you’re doing’ but that’s not always the case and that attitude means that a young lad will keep quiet if he sees an old hand doing something unsafely. I don’t want that. I want our sites to be places where people can challenge one another no matter who they are.”

The work culture on construction sites tends to be macho and sometimes aggressive. The only way to break down barriers and encourage people to speak about health and safety is to be transparent and, as David argues, “you need to show your workforce that when they speak up they’ll be taken seriously.” However, creating and sustaining a consistent approach to safety takes hard work. David “It isn’t all strawberries and cream. If you ask our guys whether there’s a level playing field on site then they’ll probably tell you that the sub-contractors get away with more. They’re probably right; creating a level playing field is something we have to keep working at.”

Commitment to continuous safety improvement

The HSE is looking to companies like Global Construction and ScottishPower Renewables to lift standards by leading on safety through their supply chain. Companies – whether they are producers or contractors – can always exercise influence through the way they award contracts. David “our power to influence comes from the fact that we’ve won the business and if people want a piece of that, then they have to operate to our standards.”

Continuous improvement also relies on the willingness of organisations – wherever they are in the supply chain - to learn from and share practice with one another. David “When we work with a Principal Contractor we take the attitude that their guys have different methods that we have to adopt. But this is also a learning opportunity for us. We see how their methods can enhance our own working practice.”

Global Construction is among those forward thinking contractors that recognise that their commitment to continuous improvement on safety is a key differentiator. David “Health & safety is always important to us. It's about making sure that the guys who come into work in the morning go home again. Most of these guys have worked with us for many years and they're important to us. But health & safety is also good for business. I believe that our commitment will make a difference to how we're seen by potential clients.”

The challenge then, is for such companies to improve the way they communicate what they are doing to existing and potential clients and suppliers. Our final article we will present a case study showing how Global Construction is using innovative methods as a means of encouraging transparency on the construction site and to communicate that health and safety commitment to clients. The next article in the series will address this challenge from the producer’s perspective – ScottishPower Renewables.

Editor's note: This article was kindly provided by Esther Walker, Co-founder and Director of Forum Interactive. Dr Esther Walker is a social scientist, facilitator and gestalt therapist. She specializes in the influence of work culture on the way individuals think and behave and the interventions which support safe and healthy work practices.

For additional information:

Forum Interactive

Tags: SAF ,Wind ,Wind energy
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