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Don't ignore the biggest potential benefit of our sector deal

Paul Westbury

Our industry needs radical change to meet the government’s ambitions, but there’s a more direct threat we need to face up to.

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have shown that the construction industry remains the UK’s most dangerous sector.

The 38 fatalities in the year to 31 March 2018 represented a 27 per cent increase on the previous year. Six members of the public also died as a result of construction activities. 

This surely must be the most compelling reason for wholesale industry improvement – and with two government initiatives launched in recent weeks challenging the sector to reform, there is no better time to enact change.

Only one way to change 

Business secretary Greg Clark’s announcement of the nuclear sector deal has tasked us with cutting the cost of building nuclear plants by 30 per cent within 12 years. We hope that nuclear reactor technology will get cheaper, but a significant burden of cost cutting will rightly fall on us: the engineers and construction teams building the facilities.

There is only one way we can do this: move away from outdated construction methods and invest in digital design and engineering, and offsite manufacture and assembly.

Laing O’Rourke is already pioneering this approach to nuclear with its partner Bouygues and client EDF Energy. The structures of Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear plant in the UK for a quarter of a century, were modelled in 4D down to the last nut and bolt. 

“Achieving productivity improvements that can match those in the aerospace and automotive sectors will need bold clients”

O’Rourke manufactures massive infrastructure components using modern methods, and its engineers know to the millimetre where and how to assemble them. The company is also working with several partners on small modular reactors, which rely on offsite manufacture and modular construction – and that means replicability.

The future isn’t high-vis vests and hard hats; it’s white coats, bump caps and digital design. The future isn’t more labour on site; it’s better skilled, directly employed workers in more secure, safer jobs in design suites and regional manufacturing precincts.

Client backing needed

Laing O’Rourke was pleased to see that same message ring out in the government’s construction sector deal, also unveiled last week

Achieving productivity improvements that can match those in the aerospace and automotive sectors will need bold clients to facilitate this smarter approach. The government can make long-term commitments to make the transition possible, shifting away from outdated procurement processes that entrench traditional contracting, and instead embracing partnerships that bring the supply chain together at the earliest opportunity.

However, it was surprising that recent announcements failed to stress a critical additional benefit of modern approaches: enhanced safety.

By adopting new methods we can significantly reduce workplace injuries and fatalities – and start to make real inroads into those HSE statistics that reflect so poorly on inefficient and archaic approaches.

We have the opportunity to bring our industry up to date and create a smarter, safer and more diverse workplace that helps attract and retain the essential skills required.

Paul Westbury is group technical director at Laing O’Rourke

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