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5 safety lessons the space industry can teach engineers

07 December 2021

Tideway and Costain draw parallels between the construction and space industries, highlighting some key steps that we can all take to keep people safe and well at work.

5 safety lessons the space industry can teach engineers
None of the safety initiatives are rocket science. Image credit: Shutterstock

How much can we learn from comparing health and safety practice in the space industry and the construction industry? A lot, was the clear answer from the recent ICE Costain Prestige Health and Safety Lecture. This gave an opportunity to compare the approach to safety when sending astronauts 400km above the earth to that when tunnelling under London on Tideway.

A clear message was that striving for excellence in health, safety and wellbeing starts with relentlessly focussing on brilliance in getting the basics right.

1. Setting core safety values

In the lecture, Libby Jackson, formerly flight director for the Columbus Mission, explained that the space industry operates on the principle of Crew, Vehicle, Mission.

That is, the primary, over-riding, priority is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the crew. Protecting the space vehicle comes next and the mission is last. If the crew and the vehicle are always safeguarded, the mission can be completed in time.

These are exactly the same values adopted on Tideway. Above all we value the safety of our team, and the health of anyone affected by our work, and the most important thing each day is to keep people safe.

The next most important thing is doing good work, building quality civil engineering, and protecting the assets and environment around us. As long as we keep a total focus on these priorities, we will work as a team to ultimately deliver the outcome of the project.

Right from the day that someone joins Tideway, this message is clear. Our innovative, immersive induction takes people through a simulated fatal accident and the antecedents that led to it. The conversations and training that take place through the induction are designed to understand how the conditions can be created that cause accidents, and what we can do to stop this happening. The personal message given by one of the senior leadership team at every induction reinforces our principle that everyone is empowered to stop work if they are not sure that the plan is safe, and everyone is entitled to the time needed to do things safely.

2. Avoiding pressure

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986 was caused by a decision made to launch, despite the concerns of engineering experts. Pressure to achieve a pre-determined launch date directly led to the death of seven astronauts.

One of the most critical roles of leaders on infrastructure projects is establishing a positive safety culture. An crucial component of this is creating an environment that prevents unacceptable pressures being placed on people.

Pressure can stop people stepping back to re-evaluate risks when changes occur, and can quickly lead to mistakes. To the contrary, an environment where work is meticulously well-planned and is undertaken in a calm, steady manner enables us to keep our teams safe. It improves people’s wellbeing, and also enables a consistent good performance.

A good starting point is to consult with the teams who will actually do the construction work when planning it, and to set realistic schedules. Another important tool is to not create seemingly immovable deadlines – these can quickly lead to a cascade in unacceptable pressures.

3. Getting the basics right - designing everything carefully to prevent injuries

When we started Tideway, we set ourselves an aspiration of transformational health, safety and wellbeing. This vision recognised that we had all worked very hard on previous major projects, but that people had still been hurt. We knew that we had to do things differently to shift to a better outcome. We also understood that we had the responsibility to do things that could help the wider industry continuously improve, building on the good work of projects before us.

The obvious question was how would we achieve that transformational performance?

Through a series of collaborative workshops across the organisations involved in Tideway, we concluded that the greatest focus had to be on getting the basics right. Adopting new best practice and innovation should follow.

Getting the basics right

The first of these was site facilities, welfare and site clothing (PPE). Valuing our people means providing them with good facilities. We specified and designed our site offices to be of a standard that you would expect in a normal office, with showers and changing areas the same as would be found in a good quality gym. PPE was specified to be high quality, with sizing that that was suitable for men and women. Everything was planned to be inclusive of gender, ability and religion.

As an example of the level of specification, every site is provided with a dedicated briefing area that helps teams focus on the task ahead. This is a space where daily briefings can be given without distraction. Good audio-visual facilities enable clear communications, and allow engineers to present plans, design models and diagrams to their teams.

Providing high standard site facilities enables good wellbeing and reinforces the value placed on people.
Providing high standard site facilities enables good wellbeing and reinforces the value placed on people.

Out on site, the attention to detail continues, with pedestrian walkways, edge protection and exclusion zones carefully planned and implemented. As well as physically keeping people safe, designing these to a high standard creates the sense of a professional and organised site, and reminds us all to act with the highest integrity.

The rigour in the space industry of designing everything carefully to prevent injuries in space has obvious parallels to the construction industry. We are constantly striving to do the same to prevent injuries 65m below ground, where incident response becomes very challenging.

4. Involving the team in planning work

The critical importance of rigorous planning is well understood in the space industry and the construction industry.

On Tideway, we are undertaking safety-critical work at every worksite. Prior to high-risk work being undertaken, a thorough team-based readiness review takes place. This looks at all aspects of planning, design, consenting, quality control and safety management. The team capability and competence are reviewed, as well as controls to enhance occupational health and avoid fatigue. Contingency planning and emergency response are important aspects of the readiness review process.

Fundamental to a successful readiness review is involving the right people. This is a collaborative review with all necessary expertise represented, and with an open culture that allows and promotes constructive challenge. The people who are actually going to do the work are central, seeking their expertise on the risks involved and ensuring they are satisfied that plans are realistic and safe.<

It is critically important that work planning involves the team actually doing construction.
It is critically important that work planning involves the team actually doing construction.

5. Maintaining standards on site

When work starts, it's essential to establish good standards from the outset and to maintain them. If standards start to slip, then unsafe conditions can become normalised, and people accept them.

Leadership safety tours are really important to help guard against this, and the engagement with teams from these visits is another highly important aspect of a strong safety culture.

6. Learning from failure and celebrating success

There will inevitably be things that don’t go to plan. Rigorously reporting and analysing near misses and unsafe conditions, and implementing the learning from these is another important step in driving excellence. This only works if the culture allows people to have the confidence to openly discuss the cause of problems, trusting that they will be supported and not criticised.

Equally important is sharing the best practice that teams do on a daily basis, to recognise them for their work and to inspire others to continuously raise their game.

Through the RightWay Awards, Tideway set out a program to reward and celebrate success. Project teams take pride in doing things well, and rewarding excellence in doing the basics right will encourage people to keep doing this and show the value placed on them. Encouragement of day-to-day operational excellence helps the teams rise to the challenges of the complex and high risk work, through the confidence and competence gained through good performance and through knowing that they are supported by the project leadership.

What can we all do?

None of this is rocket science. Through careful planning and a relentless focus on the basics, we can set the conditions for our teams to do amazing work.

We’d encourage all civil engineers, whether involved in design, planning or construction, to take some time to review whether the simple things are being done really well. Small improvements can have a huge impact on teams and can really help to keep our people safe.

Step back and ask yourself what can go wrong today, and what can I change with my team that will ensure, beyond doubt, that everyone will go home safely.

  • Andy Alder, vp for major projects and programmes, jacobs and programme director, tideway at Jacobs and Tideway
  • Bryan Williams , Construction Superintendent, Costain Group PLC