Safety in construction - still a matter for concern?

I heard a phrase recently that has stuck with me: "The government is concerned about that issue, but it's not the government's concern." Sir Humphrey clearly lives on.

But the reason that it stuck is because it reminded me of my relationship with safety in the very early part of my career. I was concerned about safety, but, if I was brutally honest with myself, I didn't feel that it was my concern.  Safety was something that other people managed.

Of course, I didn't want to design anything that couldn't be built, and I didn't want to see anybody hurt. I was concerned if someone was - but it wasn't my concern. 

I've moved on from there. If we can be part of an industry in which safety is everyone's concern, what a great industry that would be. And we’re getting there. I'm seeing more integration in this industry, and much more attention to safe planning and execution. And when we really embrace Building Information Modelling (BIM), we’ll take another step in our understanding of construction systems and processes.

Then we will have practitioners who see buildings and infrastructure as integrated systems. We’ll have computer models at our disposal that will allow us to investigate the consequences of our choices in a far wider context: spatial, structural stability, embedded carbon, energy performance and safety. Construction will have become high-tech. And sustainability - and safety, - will be everyone's concern. 

Safety must go hand in hand with sustainability.  We can't morally talk about a sustainable future if we exclude from that discussion the total elimination of fatalities during construction. In the big picture, sustainability is important because it saves lives, and human life is the most precious of all.  Safety management is at the sharp end of sustainability. Just because we’ve always killed people in construction, doesn’t mean we always must. Sustainable design has to be safe design. 

That’s why SCOSS, and its offspring CROSS, together known as Structural Safety, are so important. For designers, the Structural-Safety website provides a “go-to” place for an increasingly important database of near-misses in construction, and executed designs, with guidance on how to avoid them. For constructors, they provide a source of lessons learned on other projects, awareness of which can be built into the planning process.  For clients they provide a high level sampling of hazards that should be considered in strategic risk management for projects. 

By treating construction as a holistic system, with enough high tech assistance at our disposal, and a change in culture, I can see a future where we are not just concerned about safety but all of us, genuinely, in every part of design and construction, believe and accept that safety is our shared concern.  

Gordon Masterton is the Chairman of SCOSS and past President of the Institution of Civil Engineers

For more information on SCOSS, CROSS visit the Structural Safety website: