Alistair Moffat considers how a pursuit of perfection can lead to missing the point of health and safety.

Alec Guinness, in the film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, portrayed a captured British Army officer (Colonel Nicholson) overseeing the construction of a railway bridge, part of the Burma Railway. It was constructed by prisoners in a very hostile environment. However, Nicholson’s zeal for perfection blinded him of his original goal; to assist the allies in defeating the Japanese.

Whilst recently undertaking a safety tour for a drylining subcontractor I was confronted by the principal contractor’s construction manager. He was triumphant in telling me he had just ‘yellow carded’ a fixer for only applying two of the four brakes on his podium steps. Whilst I was convinced that most of what rested on his shoulders consisted of potato, Colonel Nicholson suddenly came to mind.

If you think I am unjust, let’s pan out a bit on the overall project. Firstly, the project has a very ambitious, possibly unachievable programme so the success depended upon a very robust sequence of works and having visited site a number of times, there was little evidence this was the case.

The site logistics were very difficult, insufficient hoists or hoists which will not accommodate plasterboard.  I had often witnessed labourers pushing trolleys down long narrow corridors and having to negotiate around M&E contractors installing services. It was clear that the labourers were fatigued in loading out and undoubtedly investing in upper skeletal problems in later life.

In trying to deliver specific milestone targets the principal contractor was making unreasonable requests on the drylining subcontractor. This resulted in fixers being dispatched to areas which had only been partially released. Often this had resulted in reworking as the M&E contractor had done irreparable damage to the second fixing. However, it had consumed resources from the drylining and therefore they were behind elsewhere.

Undoubtedly more accidents happen when supervision is stretched and operatives are working long hours and weekends. On this project there had been continuous weekend working for a number of weeks and there was a sense that operatives were very tired. Possibly a similar environ the film mentioned above.

Let us now return to the podium incident. On questioning the operative he informed me he was using a podium in a small riser only wide enough for the podium. To operate the front brakes he needed to crawl under the podium, which was a hazardous act in itself.  Hence he only applied the rear two brakes. He had defended his actions, but the discipline notice for non-compliance was still enforced.

For a moment my fertile imagination had visions of the podium careering off the site, down the road, in still wind conditions with the two rear brakes smoking – somehow propelled by a mysterious force. But then reality kicked in and I realised that H&S has gone mad. We have clearly created a monster that focuses on trivia and completely misses the overall aim we should all be striving for.

In my opinion principal contractors (PCs) are in general lacking competence in H&S. The cause is a lack of training to an accredited level.  No doubt there is an abundance of NVQs in site supervision and site management but these create a false illusion of ability as they are only evidence based.  H&S competence is vested in itinerant H&S advisers who merely police non-compliance as opposed to engender a safer environment through training.

If a member of the PCs team on site was competent (say to NEBOSH Construction Certificate and maintained his knowledge through CPD) I believe we may get away from the Colonel Nichoson encounters.

It would be nice if my discussion with the contract manager was open to some kind of reasoned argument. However, bitter experience has taught me that the relationship between the PC and subcontractor is akin to the scenario on the bridge over the river Kwai. I have often voiced concerns about site wide H&S issues on site only to be subjected to a ‘retribution H&S’ (full audit of all my H&S documentation, sudden increase in non-compliances etc.). So much for ‘one team’ environ preached at site induction.

Unless we see a change to this utter madness and divert from the course we are currently on, we will never make any real progress.


Alistair Moffat
Brunel Construction Consultants