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First, some good news. Over the last decade, the UK Construction industry has undergone something of a cultural transformation. Fatal injury rates have been more than halved and major injury rates have improved by more than one third. I have had the pleasure of visiting some of the best examples of good practice in construction up and down the country in the last year or so not least the Olympic Park here in London and Media City in Salford. What is particularly striking about these examples of good practice is not just the safety performance which is achieved, but the way in which it has been achieved. Health and safety is part of the culture and it is led from the top. Workforce involvement and engagement at every level is clearly visible. Innovative practices are being implemented which reduce the inherent levels of risk. Motivation, commitment, collaboration in the supply chain; productivity is high and goes hand-in-hand with good health and safety practice – it’s a win-win, not a trade off.
But this particular success story does of course have a major sting in the tail. We now know what levels of performance can be achieved and what huge benefits can accrue when the culture change happens. So this makes the 41 deaths and more than 3,000 major injuries which occurred in the construction industry last year all the more tragic because we know that they need not have happened. The old ‘assumptions’ that construction was a hazardous industry and that little could be done to change the culture were completely wrong. Attitudes and performance can be changed but we have yet to achieve that across the whole of the industry.
Strong evidence is beginning to emerge of a two-tier industry developing in construction. There is a direct correlation between the high accident incidence rates on smaller sites and in particular on refurbishment work. It would be easy to rationalise this problem away by saying that smaller sites and refurbishment work are ‘different’. In some senses of course this is true. But in the current climate of flexible working, sub-contracting and sub-sub contracting this argument is increasingly difficult to maintain. Those who are today engaged in small scale non-commercial refurbishment projects may very soon find themselves working on large scale green field projects and vice-versa.
Here are just a few reasons why these types of mobility are not just possible but probable:
In the last 2-3 years construction has been hit by the worst recession in over 50 years – the industry now employs 375,000 fewer people than in 2008. As we emerge from recession, private sector investment in construction is going to create huge demand for skills.
We need look no further than the huge infrastructure investment required in the energy economy for evidence of this. Investment in the grid itself as well as massive investment in renewable energy technologies and nuclear – all of this will involve construction activity on a major scale.
At the same time, the huge squeeze on expenditure will have an opposite effect on major construction projects in the public sector in building new schools, hospitals and public amenities.
We have no way of knowing how these events will coincide but my point is that these forces will create movement of labour across the full spectrum of the sector as we enter economic upturn and growth.
But if the difference in performance between large scale projects and domestic refurbishment is telling, the correlation between inexperience in a job and risk of injury is even more compelling.
Just as we have moved on from the generic mindset that ‘construction is a dangerous industry’, we must stop ourselves from falling into the trap of believing that ‘refurbishment and small scale construction are different’. Or that there is anything inevitable about new and inexperienced workers being more ‘prone’ to injury.
What the evidence of the past tells us is that despite making significant progress; particularly on major high profile construction projects, refurbishment and the influx/flow of inexperienced recruits throughout the sector are two priority areas which we must now focus our attention on in construction to reach the next level of performance improvement and culture change. Furthermore, the performance improvement which has been achieved over the last decade clearly demonstrates not only what is possible but the very clear business benefits of doing it.
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