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5 ways to improve health and safety onsite

22 December 2022

The ICE’s inaugural Inspiring Engineering Excellence event examined the role of engineers in increasing safety across projects and programmes. 

5 ways to improve health and safety onsite
The industry needs to encourage people to speak out. Image credit: Cohenbaum

If it’s to genuinely improve safety and reduce risk, the construction industry needs to develop a learning culture and encourage people to speak out.

Below are the themes that emerged from the ICE’s inaugural Inspiring Engineering Excellence event, which was designed to examine the role of engineers in improving safety across projects and programmes.

Inspiring Engineering Excellence event
The first Inspiring Engineering Excellence event.

1. Feeling comfortable with sharing concerns

“We need to create the right environment in which people feel comfortable to share concerns if they have any,” explained Simon Lawrence, HM specialist inspector in the HSE’s construction engineering specialist team.

“If you create an environment where people are comfortable sharing, then we can all learn.”

This is something that is far more prevalent in the aviation industry, which has a ‘not for blame’ culture when it comes to investigating safety incidents.

As a result, people feel more comfortable explaining their experience of the incident, and the wider industry benefits because the lessons are shared.

Graham Braithwaite, director, transport systems, and professor of safety and accident investigation at Cranfield University, says: “Real leadership is about creating the right environment and empowering people to have open conversations.”

2. Understanding the attitudes and scenarios that lead to risk

Engineers attending the event experienced these issues first-hand at an immersive workshop run by the Active Training Team.

In this workshop, they found themselves in the middle of a realistic scenario that played out around them.

They saw the lead-up to a hazardous situation on a site and the decisions, attitudes and culture of the individuals and organisations involved.

Delegates were able to quiz some of the main players about their choices and question how they themselves would’ve behaved in the same situation.

Most people in the room recognised the attitudes and situations displayed in the scenario, including:

  • The gap between publicly talking about health and safety, and the actions of management.
  • An unrealistic timescale that’s not being challenged by the client, resulting in additional pressure on the project team.
  • A confrontational relationship between clients and contractors, with information not being shared.
  • Concerns not being listened to and a fear of ‘failure’ at every level of the business.

3. Getting clear on the importance of psychological safety

The workshop raised a lot of questions about the way organisations approach safety, leadership, and responsibility. It investigated why the culture of an organisation plays such an important part in the industry’s approach to safety and risk.

“As engineers, we tend to look at risk and safety in terms of whether something is going to fall down,” says Alison Baptiste, director of operations at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.

“We tend to forget about the wellbeing aspect – do you feel safe? We should be looking at the whole picture, not just the technical side”

Speaking at the event, Baptiste emphasised the importance of ‘psychological safety’ – the freedom for people to raise issues that worry them.

“If we can get more psychological safety in the construction industry, we will take a step forward,” she said.

4. Addressing the safety culture gap

Patrick Hayes, technical director of the Institution of Structural Engineers said the workshop highlighted the ‘safety culture gap’ that exists in many businesses.

This is the difference between what senior managers say about the importance of safety, and what is actually happening at ground level.

“A safety culture is fine until push comes to shove, and it’s 10 o’clock at night and you’re under the cosh [or under pressure],” he said. “The person in that position needs to know it is OK to stop.”

Andy Alder, VP for major programmes and project delivery at Jacobs, says one way to do this is to make safety culture clear from the start of a project, as happens during work inductions on Tideway.

“We have a discussion about what creates a safety culture, and training on how to have these conversations so that people know they are being empowered to step back and stop,” Alder says.

“After that, everything we do starts with a conversation about what are the risks, how are you feeling, do you feel safe, etc. – even before we talk about how the work is going.”

5. Implementing real leadership on health and safety

The event highlighted the importance of leadership at every level, starting with clients.

“Leadership has to start at the very top, from the client, but they have to mean it,” Lawrence said.

“We’re all saying the right thing, but I’m not convinced the right behaviours are out there and being deployed widely. I would like to see all clients being open to having frank, honest conversations about what is achievable.”

Watch the event recording

  • James Crumly, knowledge manager at ICE