Halfway to hell

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

More health and safety measures have been implemented in the workplace over the past century than ever before, as worker rights have taken centre stage and businesses have stepped up to take care of their own. But how successful have we really been?

San Francisco Bay. You’re dangling hundreds of feet in the air trying to build a bridge. Thick fog hampers visibility and driving rain makes the steel girders slippery. Icy winds numb your fingers and threaten to blow you off your perch.

When the Golden Gate Bridge was built during the thirties, chief engineer Joseph Strauss understood the risks and invested more than $130,000 in a radical innovation: a vast safety net, not unlike those found beneath a circus trapeze.

The net was a great success. Nineteen construction workers fell into it and lived to tell the tale. These survivors declared themselves members of the Halfway to Hell Club, which has since become part of construction industry legend. So began a focus on health and safety that remains unchallenged to this day.

The issue is clear for Keith Clarke, chief executive of Atkins and winner of Outstanding Safety Achievement at Building magazine’s Health and Safety Awards 2007, for his work chairing the Construction Industry Council’s health and safety committee: “Health and safety should not be a market force issue – it needs to be one of leadership and pride in what we do. It’s a question of behaviour, across the board. Everyone in the industry, at all levels, must understand that unsafe sites or activities are unacceptable, and it is up to each of us to make sure this is the case.”

Part of the challenge, according to Clarke, is to focus on the detail: “Sweeping changes to legislation and grandiose directives from management are all well and good,” he says, “but making certain that we’re thinking seriously about health and safety from the ground up will make all the difference.”

For example, in the decades following the dare-devil construction of the iconic American bridge, a number of technical innovations have made life safer for construction workers the world over, while speeding up the building process and making it possible to work in ways never before considered. And, like the netting strung under the bridge, the best solutions have often been the most straightforward.

For example, in the UK, one important innovation has been the improvement and greater use of scaffolding. Mechanical lifts can be installed, which can transport materials previously carried on workers’ backs. Another innovation has been the prefabrication of large building components off-site: “The more work you can do in the controlled environment of a factory, the lower the risks on-site, where you might be working at height or in poor weather,” says Stephen Williams, chief inspector of construction with Great Britain’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It’s a practice that was used, for example, to build the spectacular bridges and integrated wind turbines of the new Atkins-designed Bahrain World Trade Center.

The recently perfected practice of fitting fall protection equipment at ground level – rather than installing it once scaffolding has been erected – is also helping to avert injury.

Kevin Fear, head of health and safety at ConstructionSkills, a UK statutory body that provides industry training and support, believes the uptake of these innovations has been boosted significantly by new regulations. When the Work at Height regulations were introduced in the UK in 2005, for example, there was a marked increase in the hire of mobile work platforms. This, in turn, encouraged safety product designers in the UK to develop innovative new platforms to meet soaring demand.

“Now mobile work platforms can fit into a lift or move easily along narrow corridors,” Fear points out.

Ongoing challenges

Despite a long-term trend of improving health and safety figures, new data released by the HSE shows an increase in fatalities and serious accidents in the UK this year. There were 77 fatal injuries to construction workers in the 12 months preceding March 30, 2007 – that’s a rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers.

Part of the reason for the increase, says Williams, is that many smaller construction businesses in the country’s property market are taking on more, and sometimes bigger, projects than ever before: “There is a fear, a suspicion, that some companies were biting off more than they could chew,” he says. Indeed, construction workers are far more likely to be involved in an accident if they work for a small company on a small site. Therefore, getting these small and medium-sized construction enterprises to improve their health and safety measures is a challenge for everyone in the industry, Williams says.

At ConstructionSkills, Fear believes safety records can be improved on sites of all sizes using an as-yet underrated resource – construction workers themselves. “Talk to a site operative and they will know more about ground conditions, excavating holes and so on than the architect ever will,” he says.

This lesson hit home for Fear 30 years ago, when he was a site manager looking for a buried cable. He was about to embark on a time-consuming search using CAT scan equipment. But a construction worker on the site simply pointed to the ground and said, “The cable is there”.

“I asked him how on Earth he knew that,” Fear recalls. “He pointed out that if you looked closely, you could see that the ground above the cable had a slightly different colour, from where the trench had been filled in. He’d developed this knowledge through years of experience.”

Fear reckons that this is an important lesson for anyone looking to improve health and safety on a construction site: “We employ construction workers for their hands, but their brains come free,” he says.

As the construction industry becomes ever more global, with construction sites increasingly populated by architects, contractors and construction workers from across the world, the importance of international health and safety standards is also growing.

To this end, Atkins has joined forces with other world-leading design and construction firms, and with ConstructionSkills, to develop an “international safety assessment”, based on the successful UK Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) – “The assessment can be delivered via the internet, so it is immediately transferable to any country,” says Fear.

“Construction safety standards in the developing world can be variable, but there have been noticeable leaps forward in recent years,” says Tim Askew, regional managing director of Atkins in the Middle East. “Looking at the UAE in particular, where Atkins has some 1,500 staff – the attitude of the statutory bodies has noticeably stiffened. There is more pressure now across the board on improved safety standards.

“Major projects and first division contractors are generally working to European standards, but it is the smaller sites and contractors that tend to be challenged. This increased urgency to improve things is welcomed by Atkins, which takes a strong lead on all our projects. We offer safety tours for directors, and these have gone a long way to connect the grassroots of the industry to the senior decision makers. It’s interesting to see how the contractors and clients are enthused by the interest we take. We have found that clients won’t tolerate poor safety standards and, contrary to popular belief, have been prepared to stop projects when we have pointed out unsafe practice.

Atkins in the Middle East is currently putting its staff through the process for the CSCS safety card accreditation. The scheme was established in 1995, with the objective of helping the construction industry to improve quality and bring down the number of accidents.

“We have modified the UK system especially for Middle East use, so we can be sure that they are all familiar with basic health and safety standards and procedures. We are prepared to take leadership in the safety arena and can see immediate improvement in standards as a result,” says Askew.

Rules of the game

In the UK, the first regulatory landmark in construction heath and safety occurred in 1974, with the Health and Safety at Work Act. This was followed in 1992 by the so-called “six pack” of Health and Safety at Work regulations. Construction companies had to take steps to understand, control, reduce and, where possible, eliminate risks.

The Construction, Design and Management (CDM) regulations, passed in 1994, outlined the specific safety responsibilities of designers, clients and principal construction contractors. When the CDM regulations were updated in 2007 – taking into account changes in safety attitudes and behaviours in the industry – they also reduced the amount of paperwork associated with health and safety. This was welcomed by Williams: “I’d much rather – as would my inspectors – see three pages of practical guidance, smudged with grubby oil stains and mud marks, in the site supervisor’s pocket than four perfect ring-binders in the company’s head office.”

But, with all these technical and legislative innovations, are construction sites actually getting safer? In general, yes. In the UK alone, fatalities in the construction industry have fallen by, on average, 3.9 per cent per year since 1992.

Talk to anyone involved in health and safety and they all point to a change in attitudes and behaviour as the silver bullet for reducing risks on construction sites. According to Williams, this is not only a challenge for the construction industry but also for society at large: “Society has turned against drink drivers. We’ve got to get the same cultural approach to fatalities on construction sites,” he says.

Meanwhile, the industry itself needs to build on the progress made since the Halfway to Hell Club was founded, by getting together more often to share information. “It’s the old adage: ‘Those who forget history are bound to repeat it’,” says Fear.

Blueprint for safety

Experts agree that one of the best ways to minimise risks during the construction of a building is to take safety into account at the drawing-board stage. Danish technical engineering specialist Rambøll did just this when it created three bridges – each carrying a wind turbine – for the groundbreaking, Atkins-designed Bahrain World Trade Center, which is set to open early in 2008.

“On any project, we always do a safety, availability, reliability and maintainability (SARM) analysis,” says Lars Thorbek, project manager at Rambøll. As part of this, all conceivable accident scenarios are listed. “For example, if a bolt falls on your head from 100 metres above, you will be killed,” Thorbek says. Each of these scenarios is then assigned with both a “consequence” and a “probability”.

“For the Bahrain World Trade Center, we had about 25 scenarios. Most of them were either very unlikely or had negligible consequences. We then concentrated on the remaining scenarios,” Thorbek says. These were: the bridge falling down, the wind turbine blades falling down and materials falling from the bridge. “The consequences of these events would obviously be catastrophic, so we had to make sure that their probabilities were very low,” he adds.

The 68-tonne bridges were built off-site then lifted into place at a nail-biting rate of just 10 or 11 metres per hour, during periods when the site was cleared of workers.

“The last bridge, at 140 metres, began its ascent bright and early, and landed just after sunset,” says Thorbek. “Only one person was in charge. No-one did anything unless he told them to. That’s the best way of doing it.”

Photo: Rich Niewiroski Jr.

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