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When it comes to safety, the customer can't always come first

Road worker safety has provoked interesting and informed comment on over the last few weeks.

The issue has come to the fore since the sad news of 28-year-old Balfour Beatty worker Ben Collins’ death following injuries he sustained while carrying out roadworks between Junctions 1 and 2 of the M3 near Sunbury last month.

Readers have left comments on Construction News articles questioning whether Highways England is doing enough to prioritise worker safety, while keeping the strategic road network open to motorists at all times.

At the heart of the debate is the old adage that the customer should always come first.

Breaking rules

This week, Highways England’s new chief executive Jim O’Sullivan was keen to stress that safety is the exception to that golden rule.

The new CEO, who officially took over from Graham Dalton on 1 July, is no stranger to the customer-versus-staff conundrum.

“It’s difficult for Mr O’Sullivan to publicly say that there are times when the customer will come second”

As the leader of a public-facing client organisation, it’s difficult for someone in Mr O’Sullivan’s position to publicly say that there are times when the customer will come second, no matter how obvious a sentiment it may be.

It’s reassuring, then, to hear him being unequivocal when it comes to road worker safety.

Contractors should stop work immediately if they consider sites to be unsafe, he insists, or if there is an inherent risk to staff. “Stop work, then come and tell us,” he says, not the other way around.

Highways England is also trialling new ways to influence driver behaviours, such as signs on the M1 letting motorists know how long they’ll be sharing the road with workers.

No stranger

From his time as chief engineer at Concorde, Mr O’Sullivan is all too familiar with the dilemma of prioritising both the customer and safety.

At Concorde he would be sent out to face furious passengers demanding to know why there was even a five-minute delay to their journey.

“Mr O’Sullivan is familiar with the dilemma of prioritising both the customer and safety”

Once the sound barrier was broken, though, he knew most passengers would forgive delays. But the aviation sector is also no stranger to tragedy, like the Concorde flight operated by Air France in 2000 which crashed killing more than 100 people.

The CEO is clear that, just as airlines must always make further safety checks while keeping passengers informed of delays to flights, the highways sector should be no different.

Mr O’Sullivan now needs to ensure safety returns to the forefront of everyone’s thoughts in the aftermath of the recent M3 fatality, which has left a devastated family and group of colleagues behind.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Robert Hudson

    Respectfully suggest that there is an in-balance between getting the cake out of the door as with most construction related projects

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  • I observed with interest during a recent holiday in Florida the signs along the highway stating: Speeding fines double when workers present. Have we thought about something similar in the UK?

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  • stuart goddard

    It seems that the abundance of signs simply overwhelm drivers, And result in a virtual overload of information. The French " Bless them" use moving signs in the format of a work man. It always grabbed my attention when travelling in that country. Give it a try..

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