Home Features Health & safety: Eye of the beholder

Maintaining a consistent approach to providing a safe working environment is a top priority and it is essential to document expectations and responsibilities when planning on-site activity to ensure that there is a consistent approach. However perception can often be misleading as Alistair Moffat found out on a recent contract.

If you look at the image above do you see beautiful maiden or an old hag? What some workers perceive as a safe working processes others may see it as reckless and high risk. It all depends on our individual perception of a specific situation.

I was recently invited to attend a safety tour on a large construction project in London. The principal contractor had evidently prepared well for the occasion. I was subjected to an abridged visitors’ induction and a briefing on the high risk activities being undertaken on the day. Furthermore, the site was impeccably tidy with minimal accumulated waste. So the perception was a site with a good safety culture.

A few weeks later I had occasion to return to the site to undertake a safety inspection on behalf of the drylining subcontractor. Partitions were being constructed over nine levels. Admittedly the site was tidy but the site crane had been removed a week before and the materials hoist had yet to be commissioned. A high-impact resistant board
was being used which weighed some 45kg per sheet sheet. These were being hand-carried up the stairs. This was a warm sunny day and it was evident that operatives were hot and distressed. Moreover, the stairs had very tight bends and the board had to be turned vertical – this imposed heavy upper skeletal loads on the workers concerned.

The project was some two months behind schedule resulting in the M&E contractors working on the same level as the contractor installing the raised access floor. This resulted in a huge edge protection issue as the M&E contractors had removed numerous floor tiles. As an aside, on my safety tour a few weeks before I couldn’t recall a floor tile being lifted. The carpet tiles had yet to be laid therefore the galvanised steel access flooring was very slippery. Pressure tests on the heating system resulted in surplus water which made a slippery steel floor even worse.

The drylining subcontractor had been criticised for excessive trailing leads. But there were only two transformers on site. The lack of 110v supply had limited the amount of task lighting and this resulted in some rooms having inadequate lighting levels.

At the pre-start meeting it had been agreed office space, albeit a container, would be available for the drylining subcontractor. As the concrete frame contractor had yet to leave site – the offer of a site office had been rescinded. This resulted in the drylining supervisor having to use the local café as his base which caused him to be away from site. This adversely affected his ability to supervise.

When I returned on my second visit, typically large work areas had suddenly become available for second fix partitions. There was a heavy expectation for the drylining subcontractor to double or treble his labour force. But there was no allowance in the preliminary costs for additional supervision. This resulted in fixers with no known history (quality, H&S or otherwise) to work on a site with no increase in supervision. Let us not be naive enough to assume a trade specific CSCS card assures a competent worker.

It was clear my initial perception of a safe site was in error. The CDM regulations require work to be well planned and documented in advance of the start date. Co-ordination and control of trades by the principal contractor is also a duty under the regulations. In my experience the CDM regulations are the most misunderstood and neglected statutory instrument.

Poor planning and co-ordination of a project are the underlying causes which will produce an increased number of danger occurrences. Then it’s only a matter of time before an accident. Once a principal contractor is behind programme there is a temptation to yield to commercial pressure at the expense of H&S.

Alistair Moffat
Brunel Construction Consultants
T: 0208 300 0090