On site safety: supervisors must be aware of the risks

Health and safety management is often cited as the weak link in the construction industry. Supervisors may not be aware of the hazards around them on construction sites, and may place workers in dangerous conditions without fully realising the consequences. By Bill Tunney.

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By  Colin Foreman Published  March 12, 2005

On site safety: supervisors must be aware of the risks|~|safe body.jpg|~||~|The reasons why supervisors don’t always recognise safety risks are often as numerous and as varied as the work itself that is undertaken on construction projects. This means that some form of control is required to help avoid accidents and injuries to workers. The desire for ‘production’ is a false concept that supervisors are pressured into by senior managers, who often pay lip service to safety and quality requirements when placed in front of the concerned authorities. They may preach that “safety is number one”, but all too often when backs are turned and the pressure is on, the onus is upon supervisors to get the job done at any cost. This pressure has increased over the years as budgets are cut and timescales reduced. This can leave supervisors (especially younger, inexperenced ones) unable to cope with the pressure and produce a quality product in a safe manner. The need for forward planning is therefore more essential than ever. It not only helps prepare for the work coming up, but it ensures that methods are ready, resources collected and material procured in sufficient time to prevent delays. It is a general requirement for contractors — especially those on major jobs — to produce ‘method statements’ for most of the project’s operations. Unfortunately, safety requirements are not always included in these statements. There should be more involvement and demand from clients and consultants for the contractors to assess the safety features of all but the very basic work operations, right from the early stages. If a company has never properly decided how to manage and review health and safety procedures, then the easiest option is simply to continue doing nothing. However, if there is an accident, the full force of the law will be felt in an alarming and expensive manner. The obvious down side of closing one’s eyes to on site health and safety is that one risks storing up problems for later; if one delays making a decision, one may avoid immediate costs and demands on management time, but it is a false economy since it will cost dearly should an accident happen. What is less obvious is that one may also miss out on some of the advantages that arise from taking a proactive approach. These benefits include greater operational efficiency and monitoring; better team motivation, communications and loyalty; and a competitive advantage when it comes to competing for new business. The question supervisors should ask themselves is: “How can I best manage the hazards and control the risks of my business if I don’t know what they are?” The unfortunate truth is that if you don’t manage the safety of your business, then you are not capable of managing any part of your business. People and companies who show disrespect to safety and the well-being of their workers should not be allowed to run businesses in the construction industry. Safety awareness has certainly increased in recent years among companies and senior professionals in this area, and some major employers do indeed lead the way in this field, setting and achieving high standards that many other companies have unfortunately yet to commit themselves to. For such companies, there is one trend that may prove a useful model — this is the move towards developing safety management expertise as an in-house resource. This is an option many construction companies, oil companies and other major employers have taken in preference to either bringing in consultants from the outside to oversee health and safety, or simply doing nothing. If the importance of this trend is not yet apparent, it may well become so in the future, not least because it will give those companies a competitive edge in tendering for work. However, we must take care of newcomers to the industry since newly qualified individuals do not have the experience of the hazards that lurk on construction sites. What is important is for the ‘top’ management of the company to be committed to operating safe sites, and for this ‘safety culture’ to spread through all levels of managers, supervisors and workers. If such a company is committed, they should initiate a Safety Management System based on OHSAS 18001 to be established and operated within their business. The OHSAS 18001 system has been developed to be compatible with the ISO 9001 (Quality) and ISO 14001 (Environmental) management systems, athough as yet it is not an international standard. At the heart of OHSAS is the Safety Policy, of which the prime requirements are for top management to state their commitment to safety, their acknowledgement and acceptance of legal safety regulations, as well as their commitment for the continual improvement of health and safety conditions within their company. Companies should also aim to arrange safety training for established staff who are experienced in their own jobs, but who have no formal qualifications in this area. Smaller businesses should not be daunted by what they assume will be costly and cause inconvenience in developing in-house safety expertise; it needn’t be expensive nor difficult to set up. It is important for everyone to be aware that the responsibility of the management of safety must rest with those who are creating the unsafe conditions, and that the company — from the top director downwards — has the responsibility to ensure that safe working conditions are created as well as maintained. Other departments should not be allowed to delegate their responsibility to the poor safety officer, thereby giving them the chance to opt out and say that safety is someone else’s responsibility. Project management has the overall responsibility on site for the safe working of the project. The safety department is there to advise, assist and monitor, and report to the project management team. Safety personnel should be proactive in their dealings with the construction teams and help them as much as possible, but at the same time, not do the work for them i.e. housekeeping, or the fixing of handrails. There are numerous reasons why companies should make safety a priority, the obvious answer being that it will help reduce the risk of serious and costly accidents affecting a business. On a less obvious front, there is also the prospect of positive, tangible benefits from what may previously have been seen as an extra cost and an impediment to fast and flexible operations. In competitive markets, a factor that may distinguish one contractor from another is whether they can demonstrate a serious and effective safety policy. The more awareness grows, the more customers will ask searching questions from potential contractors. This is an area where clear comparisons can be made between competitors. Having well thought-out procedures in place not only indicates that accidents are less likely to arise; it also signals that the company has a level of resources and quality of management that places it above its competitors. This will be a factor in the future, and companies that take safety management seriously are already being looked at more favourably. We are at the stage where firms have to show that they are serious, otherwise it will impact on their business. Contractors must not leave themselves open to the risk of doing nothing and, at the same time, not over-burden themselves with unnecessary costs and time-consuming procedures. Risk assessment provides a sound foundation and is the basis of safety management; it produces fast, effective results and can be performed by staff in a short amount of time. Although it may be considered inexpensive, members of staff still need to be trained in the reasoning behind risk assessment, how to set it up and the benefits of using it. Risk assessment, when used as a part of the HIRARC (Hazard Identification, Risk Assessment and Risk Control) process, forms the main building block and is the key to the structure of a Safety Management System (SMS). Developing expertise in-house can offer companies other useful benefits, too. Often, the same audit process that assesses and monitors safety can also be used to encourage more efficient working practices. And increased communication, along with training for employees (which is also usually an element of any safety strategy) will have other knock-on benefits including better team-working, better communication, more responsible thinking and a greater loyalty to the company. Health and safety management must come from within and actually change the company culture; it has to be driven from the top. Without this commitment from ‘top’ management, it will quickly lose its value and not be treated seriously.||**||

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