Keep building workers safe post-Covid – Lesley McLeod

I was brought up on Greek myths – all ancient heroes and vengeful gods. When I was small, I dreamed of exotic, faraway places – like Greenock or North Berwick. Well, everything was pretty distant when you lived in Thurso and your little brother was so chronically car-sick that travelling to Inverness assumed all the less glamorous aspects of the ancient Odyssey.

Working at a great height brings danger
Working at a great height brings danger

But, finally, I found my Greece. Since the first moment I stepped into the thyme-scented evening air I loved the place. And I have been thinking about the land of Homer since the outbreak of Covid-19.

The Greeks took a very different view of risk to many other countries. They considered the capacity of their health service and concluded that, if they were to avoid people dying on a scale not seen since the Trojan war, they were going to have to lock-down tight. It worked and they are naturally anxious about reopening while recognising they must do something to have any sort of income to last the fallow winter months. It is a calculated risk.

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It’s not something they seem to apply to their building industry. I was recently taken aback when I discovered there is a department dealing with building safety at Thessaloniki university. I have often been horrified watching people working on Hellenic building projects – no hard hats, no harnesses and, apparently, no common sense.

Lesley McLeod, CEO, The Association for Project Safety

It’s not that the Greeks are unique in this – I’ve seen it mostly everywhere I have travelled and have become increasingly sensitised to conditions on building sites through my work with the Association for Project Safety (APS) which strives to design out construction risks before they ever get on site.

The UK has rules aplenty. The Westminster Government has, at last, released plans to make buildings safer in England – this, finally, in response to the disastrous fire which engulfed Grenfell Tower and cost so many lives. The devolved administrations will need to look at the plans to find ways to keep the United Kingdom’s lock-stepped in some way. I suspect this will be harder than officials think – but that’s for another day.

At the heart of proposals, like so many good labyrinthine tales, is a quest where the next step is guarded by gatekeepers. This new Cerberus has a triumvirate of the principal designer, the principal contractor and the building safety manager guarding safety at points when things are designed, when they are built and when they go into use. I am not making light of this – I think it is entirely right that responsibility must never be fudged and everything must be clear and ordered at every stage of the life of a building.

Building safety is, in my view, all too often relegated to an inconvenient cost on the balance sheet – whereas I think the equation needs to be seen from the other side, with safety primarily viewed as an essential that saves lives.

Naturally, I am particularly interested in the principal designer role as most of my nationwide membership falls into that group. I believe good design is at the heart of planning out dangers before they ever leave the drawing office. And quite right too. One of the lessons from the pandemic is, I hope, is that more can be made of computer modelling and off-site construction. This will help reduce the day-to-day risks associated with construction work and improve the safety of the final project throughout its use and on to its ultimate demolition.

But just having a doorman doesn’t mean you can shut your eyes to danger every time you cross the threshold. The Health and Safety Executive gathers the threads of the lives of workers across the country. It provides guidance, it enforces the rules and it publishes annual data on how well we are all doing. And – for construction - it isn’t getting better.

There are persistently high numbers of workers killed in construction. There are other dangerous industries – like agriculture, fisheries and recycling. But the numbers actually went up for the construction sector over the last year.

The tragedy is that very little of this is new. Working at height is a killer. But it has been a killer since long before the Parthenon lost its marbles. No amount of new legislation will change that – or the care needed when driving site vehicles or working in confined spaces or using dangerous machinery. We all have a responsibility for our own lives. But the need to cut costs post-Covid cannot mean we cut corners too.

Lesley McLeod, CEO, The Association for Project Safety

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