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‘A zero rate of accidents is possible’

John Green is determined to make Laing O’Rourke the UK’s safest contractor

In the past five years contractor Laing O’Rourke has shaken up the world of construction. Now it wants to become a standard bearer for improving the industry’s safety record.

John Green has had less than seven months to bed into his post as Laing O’Rourke group health and safety director, but he knew from day one that he would be working alongside like-minded people -people who wanted to revolutionise the way an international business, and the sector it is involved in, works.

“I had meetings scheduled with all the heads of the various businesses throughout the day,” he says, “First up was Hugh Waters, managing director of our Expanded arm. Hugh had an opinion on everything as far as health and safety was concerned.

He was with me for about an hour-and-a-half and after that I thought, ‘well they’ve sent in the most opinionated one first - things will calm down a bit now.’ They didn’t. But what really amazed me was that every one of them absolutely understood how we both fitted into the business.”

Mr Green has an impressive CV which spans four business areas. He left his post as group health and safety director at rival contractor Alfred McAlpine to join Laing O’Rourke in spring 2007, but previously had been head of safety at British Airways engineering and was health and safety manager for Motorola Europe.

The rest of his 32 year career as a safety specialist saw him clock up time in the oil and gas industry, working for giants such as Texaco and Chevron Đ posts which took him across the world.

Indeed it was the lure of the international business that initially attracted him to Laing O’Rourke, although the enthusiasm that greeted him during his interview sold the post to him.

“I had forgotten how much I missed the international aspect of my job. In many countries you have to use a different approach. You can’t use the statutory requirements approach because there may not be any, so you have to use moral or business arguments,” he says.

If Mr Green is to help the business reach its goal of zero accidents he will need all his persuasive powers. O’Rourke’s Injury and Accident Free programme target is one on which everyone at the company is focused and Mr Green dismisses any -suggestion that the construction industry is a safe now as it will ever be.

“A zero accident rate is entirely feasible. We can go for weeks on sites without any report-able accidents and there is no reason why we can’t extend those per-iods into months and years,” he argues.

“To continue with the belief that zero accidents is the impossible dream is actually to say to one of your employees ‘We think it is acceptable for you to have an accident at some point during your working life’ and that is unacceptable.”

To reach ‘the impossible dream’ requires planning. It is not an overnight process. There has to be a culture shift and ensuring the employees and subcontractors take a similar stance is the hardest part.

It is, Mr Green explains, important to construct an atmosphere where unsafe behaviour is abnormal, where they stand out so much that peer group pressure will clamp down on any malpractice.

The Laing O’Rourke Injury and Accident Free plan is broken down into three stages.

Mandatory drug tests

The first is to ‘de-risk’ the business. Basically this involves making sure the right people are employed in the first place and includes mandatory tests for drug and alcohol abuse. Fail any of the random tests and that is it. You are out. No second chance.

The second phase is to make sure everyone, employee and subcontractor, is well versed in the safety rules that Laing O’Rourke expects its staff to follow. A raft of training exercises, information notices, a safety management system on its website, dissemination teams and bulletins help push the message home.

The third stage is to explain what the employees will gain from taking the safety push on board. New equipment, top of the range safety wear, the highest level of worker protection.

Despite all these efforts there are still some who find it difficult to accept the level and speed of change that is whistling through the group. Mr Green is not in the mood for sentiment. These people have to go, he says.

“There are the older traditionalists who cannot change the way they work. It’s the way they’ve always carried out the job,” he says, “I’m afraid we have to part company with them. They will be happier in the long-term too.”

He is dismissive of the standard method of pinpointing the ‘safety’ of a company, the Accident Frequency Rate, as “an utterly useless statistic taken in isolation. It tells you when things have gone wrong, by then it’s too late, it doesn’t tell you what to do to stop those accidents happening.”

Nor does he accept that the influx of foreign labour on UK sites has increased danger levels.

Foreign labour no drawback

Mr Green argues that the professionalism of the technical trades, particularly those from the former eastern bloc countries, more than outweighs the extra strides that have to be taken in disseminating information to those where English is not their first language.

Often this can mean recruiting tradesmen in gangs and making sure there is someone in each gang that can act as a translator. But often there are simpler ways of ensuring the safety message is delivered.

“Our induction DVDs are multi-lingual and most of our larger sites provide documentation in a range of languages. Safety information is all -pictorial now. Our own accident statistics suggest our foreign workers pose no more a risk than our English workers,” he says.

And the structure at Laing O’Rourke, which sees promising young project engineers fast-tracked through a serious training scheme, also ensures that there is and will be an increasing wealth of safety experience at the highest level of the business.

The safety structure introduced around four years ago, ensures that each up-and-comer has to spend two years as a Business Unit Safety, Health and Environment Leader or BUSHEL.

This ensures the group builds up a stock of future managers who know how to control and manage safety risk on a building site, a point not lost on Mr Green.

Lessons from the oil industry

“We will have a highly risk-aware set of senior managers who will be able to drive the safety first culture through,” he says.

“Despite all the technical advances construction has made, despite the sophisticated building systems used now, this industry is still killing and injuring an unacceptable number of people each year.

“Construction is no more hazardous than the oil and gas industry. The difference is everyone has a degree of ownership about risk which keeps it well under control.

“When we get to that in construction we will be well on the way to an injury and accident free environment.”

Reducing risk through Staff screening

One of the key areas that prop up the Laing O’Rourke safety vision is to ensure that it weeds out any potential liabilities at the recruitment stage.

Already random drug and alcohol testing is carried out on its sites across the country. But Mr Green wants eventually to enforce pre-employment testing as mandatory for work on Laing O’Rourke projects.

Subcontractor or staffer everyone, at every level will have to be tested.

“What this does,” Mr Green explains, “is alleviate the risk of the person working next to you doing anything stupid while under the influence.”

Test teams are able to get to most sites across the UK within two hours and tests are carried out after any accident where it is thought drugs or alcohol may have been an influence.

But testing everyone in true pre-employment terms is difficult, particularly in an industry with such a transitory workforce as construction.

“Just because something is difficult to do doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done,” Mr Green says.

He gesticulates at the Dartford Crossing that is framed by the window in his office, “Building that was difficult. Every day on site we are faced with difficult challenges. Just because it is difficult is not a good enough reason not to introduce a testing regime.”