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Sign of the times

November 6th, 2013

Most construction companies believe that they have good engagement with the workforce. But as Rhaynukaa Soni argues, operatives need management to demonstrate a more active interest in their on-site safety.

On most construction sites today you will find a plethora of signage, notice boards, information sheets, posters… the list is endless and I now refer to it as ‘posteritis’. How much of this is actually read and absorbed by those on-site remains questionable. A challenge I’ve set many times when visiting various sites is to tell operatives that they will be awarded £1m right there and then if they can recall five of the posters currently on their notice board – no one can.

Despite a significant increase over the last 10 years in site signage and tours carried out by non-safety members of the team, I believe the level of true engagement with operatives has not increased proportionally.

signsConstruction is accepted as a high-risk industry and although safety is now a top priority on most sites, all too often this is for future commercial gain and positive PR rather than a genuine interest in the well-being of the operatives. The issue, I find, is we’ve got to a point where ‘worker engagement’ is a buzzword and companies claim to do this because it helps them tick the corporate social responsibility box, even though, ironically, they are failing to engage meaningfully with the workforce.

Worker participation
While many sites encourage worker participation, and many even have safety forums or meetings run regularly by operatives, the outcome is rarely communicated to those on-site who are not actively involved. A simple solution would be to ask the operative who attended to give a brief toolbox talk the following morning, highlighting the issues raised and the solutions offered. This provides a quick win for the company and allows full 360° feedback, encouraging participation.

By its sheer nature, construction is a transient industry and therefore any buy-in with the operatives needs to be done at the start of the project and needs to be extremely effective. If you miss the boat, it’s pretty difficult to win back their attention. What I tend to find on sites is that during the set-up phase a lot of communication is done via email or intranet, which is great when the site is remote and head office wants to share news.

However, they forget the operatives; these guys do not usually have access to a computer on-site, let alone company email accounts and therefore tend to miss a lot of the initial correspondence. Some companies do recognise this and have notice boards. The problem then is ensuring that the information is both current and relevant – normally you just see boards with notice upon notice that no one has had a chance to take down or update, and understandably operatives quickly stop bothering to look.

I’m not suggesting we have a meeting every time a new alert is issued, but a regular two-way conversation with those in the office and those on-site is something that should be scheduled in and adhered to starting from day one and continued through to handover.

Safety tours
Many companies, particularly over the last three-to-five years have started to introduce director/senior management site tours. They feel it demonstrates to the client that they are taking safety seriously and it truly is a case of ‘leading by example’. Unfortunately, these tend to be a great PR activity as well as a big tick for corporate social responsibility and they fail to produce any meaningful engagement with the operatives.

While those towards the upper end of the hierarchy are undoubtedly extremely intelligent and business minded, I have found that very few have worked their way up from the bottom. This lack of experience often means they don’t empathise. While the directors listen to what is being said, they don’t always hear what they are told.

A fundamental issue with these tours is that they are often done so infrequently that when the senior managers finally get out on-site they are far more interested in progress and have little or no time for safety. Where an operative may see a leading edge with poor edge protection or unsecured prop, management see a delay to the project schedule, which converts to an often significant financial loss. The problem is, the financial loss from a delay, regardless of the cause, is tangible, whereas significant financial gain from safe sites and healthy operatives is too often invisible and difficult to fully comprehend.

To get some meaningful engagement with the operatives and truly understand the issues, directors need to get out into the coalface and, where possible, get their hands dirty. It may not be feasible for them to operate machinery or use certain tools.

However, they can carry out basic tasks such as clearing away timber or ensuring all pedestrian segregation panels are in place – anything relating to good housekeeping is a start. Simply by doing this for one day of the year (even better – every six months) the directors will gain an insight into the work, environment and challenges facing the operatives that no other communication can provide.

Many companies have away-days or do volunteering in the local community such as picking up litter, which provide a great photo opportunity. Surely companies could set aside at least a day in the year where senior managers get out and work on-site? No emails, internet or meetings should interrupt the day and it should be spent with the workforce, including break times in the canteen, not back at their desk.

Getting senior managers to work on-site will convey the sort of message that no briefing, email, policy or poster ever can. If done correctly, this approach demonstrates that management is genuinely interested in the issues facing the workforce and how it can help.

A lot of the time operatives on-site don’t talk to senior managers let alone directors, possibly because they see a ‘class barrier’ – one that is perpetuated by the lack of site presence from management. Seeing them get stuck in and work alongside the team would help go a long way to break the ‘them and us’ culture that inevitably develops on-site.

American culture
Over the past few years, many sites have adopted an ‘American culture’. You now have signs on sites telling you to ‘mind the step’ on something no higher than a pavement, or ‘use the handrails’ on stairs similar to those found in operational buildings or at home. Do we really need all these signs? Increasingly, I have found contractors are simply printing signs from the internet and laminating them. Given the typical British weather, it’s not unusual for these signs to be drenched and illegible within a matter of weeks. Yet rarely are they replaced, reinforcing my view that a lot of them simply aren’t required in the first place.

There is a school of thought that argues that because we now have so many safety measures in place on-site, like double handrails and toe boards on a scaffold, we have made sites more dangerous. The argument is that operatives rely on these measures so much that they no longer actively think about what they are doing – they are simply on autopilot. For example, if the handrail was loose, the first they would notice is when they lean against it and fall.

I do think there is some truth in this logic, particularly when it comes to signage. By having signs for everything on-site, are we preventing the workforce from thinking for itself? Are we presuming that workers have such little intelligence that they need to be told how to do anything?

When I ask site managers why there are so many signs I am often pointed back towards management, which believes it is helping them comply with the HSWA. In fact, signage is always at the bottom of the hierarchy of control and, when used correctly, should act as a memory aid not step-by-step instructions on how to behave. It baffles me when I come across sites that are full of signs and senior managers proudly claim to be responsible because they believe it is helping them demonstrate to the workforce they care about their safety. In fact, most operatives find it quite ridiculous and more often than not end up with sign blindness.

Unfortunately, this means the really important signs, like fire exits, are all too often ignored. The number of times I’ve asked operatives where their nearest fire exit is and they point to the main entrance is rather alarming. Regular briefings, as and when the site layout changes, as well as fire/emergency evacuation drills, should be carried out to remind or inform the workforce of procedures and where the nearest exit is.

The results of these drills should be conveyed back to the team so they understand both the relevance and the importance of such activities. Where possible, getting emergency services involved in carrying out a toolbox talk and sharing real on-site experiences helps increase engagement with the workforce.
Operatives need to know what to do if something happens on-site, and the key thing for management is to ensure that every single person leaves the site quickly and safely. Not, as I heard on a site a few years ago, continue working until the emergency services arrive.

‘Worker engagement’ is the latest buzzword to be moulded into a great PR exercise for the construction industry. While most companies genuinely believe they are great at it, most of the operatives have given up trying to tell them that they are not being heard.

They don’t want posters that show what the site looks like before and after; they want real change based on the requirements of what they are doing. It’s time to go back to basics, talk to operatives and, most importantly, listen to what they have to say. I mean really listen.

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