Lesley McLeod: Safety first should be the watchword for Boris’s blizzard of project promises

The last rocket of the Festival fireworks always ­heralds autumn for me. For many others, particularly those in the thick of it, their attentions turn to the ­looming party conferences. This year commentators are anticipating fireworks or another kind with a ­tempest of policy announcements. Some think the Prime Minister may even set the date for a general ­election.

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In my time I have done the rounds of each major party. I have enjoyed the set piece stage speeches from big beasts like John Prescott or Michael Heseltine and cringed as Liz Truss talked about cheese and Ed ­Miliband forgot to talk about the economy, ­stupid!

I’ve grazed around the receptions and the exhibition stands coming home with printed bags of instantly recyclable pamphlets. I’ve caught up with long-lost friends and nursed warm white wine while people-watching at the bar. So, I had some pre-conceptions when it came to arranging an annual event for the Association for Project Safety [APS].

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It turns out the venue is the easy bit, after all, they do this for a living. The speakers aren’t just too ­problematic – we’ve never had a diva with demands for special sweeties or oriental orchids you have to fly in.

Lesley McLeod, CEO, The Association for Project Safety

But the catering is a nightmare. The old FHB rule that ’family holds back’ needs to be in play each time in case supplies run low. Even so I’ve been to events where the wine ran out. At other times the menu is a problem – I’ve been told not to serve fish if your guests are mostly male and gone to a do where lamb hotpot was served in the middle of a heatwave. Last year I had complaints there were no ­sausage rolls – and that was just from the staff!

So this year we got down to ­planning early. Each year the professional members of the design and construction health and safety risk management community get together to mull over the issues of the day. In this we are no different to many ­other ­membership groups. We are off to Sheffield this time and the ­current political and economic climate – from the lasting ripples of Grenfell to the deep waters of Brexit – will have a direct impact on the industry and its practitioners.

There has been a shower of announcements since the new prime minister entered No 10. The sector needs a clear signal from ­government about the focus, direction and speed of travel for major projects. There has been talk of plans to create new prison places as well as more new homes. There are new rail projects on the cards to match the imperative to renew the nation’s infrastructure. There are proposals to bring the building regulatory system in ­England in line with that north of the border as well as a serious ­examination of the skills and ­competences construction workers will need.

But the country needs economic stability to create a climate of ­confidence where business and ­individuals feel happy to invest and all these ­proposals demand well-qualified and knowledgeable ­construction professionals just at a time when there are concerns some European colleagues will not want – or qualify – to stay in the country.

Training home-grown talent is ever more important. APS is committed to continuing learning. We put on courses and webinars and engage with other professional groups. We even have a national competition to identify award-winning projects that showcase best practice. I am well aware some people think awards are trivial – there have certainly been times I’ve wondered if they are more bother than the work that goes in to putting them on.

But the APS view is that awards are a bit like waving a great big flag, staking out ways to save lives and reduce the enormous human cost of accidents and long-term ill-health still associated with the construction sector.

That said, the most effective risk management will always be the work that goes unsung because nothing goes wrong. Building health and safety in at the outset will always be the best way to avoid the kind of incidents – and long-term consequences – we have seen in recent years.

Grenfell was a wake-up call and, while the future is an unknown land, one thing is certain – construction, by its very nature, is not built in isolation. With the national drive to build more and faster, we must all hold fast to safety improvements that have been made so the focus remains on keeping that momentum going.

The Association for Project Safety annual conference is on 4 September at Sheffield Hallam University.

Lesley McLeod, CEO, the Association for Project Safety.