One thing my investigation into health and safety on the £745m Aberdeen bypass showed me is that numbers lie.
I spoke to many staff who previously worked on the project who all made similar allegations: that the resources and the structure were in place to ensure a safe project, but that’s not how it has played out.
The former workers claimed that life on the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (AWPR) has at times over the past few years resembled something from the “bad old days”, where an emphasis on completing the job quickly left them feeling as is safety was a secondary priority.
The AWPR’s main contractors, Balfour Beatty and Galliford Try (Carillion was the third partner until it went under in January), said they were unable to comment directly due to the partnering nature of the project. Transport Scotland said that, although responsibility for health and safety lay with the contractor, it had been working with it to enhance standards across the site.
You can have all the reporting methods in the world to expose bad practice on construction projects. But if a member of staff believes that message will not be listened to, or that safety is not management’s top priority, they won’t speak up.
And then there’s the problem with the data behind projects.
Most publicly available health and safety data will tell you one thing: ‘We’re doing a good job’, or at least, ‘We’re mainly doing a good job’. This is because two of the main metrics used by construction firms to publicly measure the safety of their working practices are restrictive and misleading.
The first are RIDDORs, which legally have to be reported to the Health and Safety Executive.
The definition of a RIDDOR covers only the most severe incidents; using the example of the AWPR, stats for RIDDORs do not reflect that four 40-tonne dump trucks overturned in a short space of time.
Then there are lost-time injuries (LTIs), accidents which have resulted in injuries to staff requiring 24 hours or more off work.
Many companies include these in their results to show how many injuries have occurred per hour. While this is important, it once again will not show that your machinery has struck utility lines 39 times in a year, as in the case of the Aberdeen bypass.
My investigation found that even when safety data on the AWPR was revealed in a freedom of information request, the lack of standardisation meant the reported number of accidents differed greatly from those contained within the internal safety reports obtained by CN.
So what the figures tell you about the project is at best unclear and at worst misleading.
Any good health and safety director will tell you that if a project has a low number of reported incidents – particularly near-misses – that’s a bad sign.
It’s only by recording the times when something nearly happens that you avoid the moment that it does.
But we need to rethink the way that we report this information.
Let’s not kid ourselves that projects are safe just because the RIDDOR numbers are low or that the LTI rate is industry-leading.
Those figures are only affected when the worst has already occurred; prevention is better than cure.