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HS2 suppliers: Time to stop whispering about health

Emma Head

Attitudes to health and safety in the construction sector have evolved a lot over the years.

I’ve worked in the railway sector for nearly 20 years, and during that time the industry has become far more focused and professional in promoting better practice. Yesterday’s World Mental Health Day highlights that this is only part of the equation. 

Construction isn’t perfect and we need to remain ever vigilant in keeping safety standards high. Change is in part driven through vigorous standards being set from the top.

More important has been the move to see safety as being not just a nice-to-have but a business imperative. It’s this cultural change that we now need to push for in the areas of wellbeing and health.

Safety has never just been about altruism. Improving standards and eradicating poor practice can help meet cost and scheduling demands. The same is true of wellbeing. In 2015, the Mental Health Foundation found that mental health issues led to 17.6m sick days and cost the economy £25bn in the UK. Workplace-based illness costs the construction industry £848m a year. 

At HS2 we’ve been incredibly careful to make sure that we focus on health as much as we do safety. We’re also asking our suppliers to do the same, while raising health standards across the industry. When we care about the health and wellbeing of our people, we create a safer environment that supports good decision-making and drives better performance.

Major programme

To drive this through our business, we’ve begun a huge training, awareness and education programme around mental health. This included awareness training for our teams, line manager training on handling difficult conversations, and upskilling more than 60 mental health first aiders across our offices. These are just the first steps; we want to take more.

“This is our message to suppliers that hope to work with HS2 in future. It’s not just about policies and rules; it’s about culture and understanding”

Our supply chain’s actions and commitment are just as important. At the peak of construction, HS2 will support 30,000 jobs and engage with tens of thousands businesses. We have an opportunity to be a big part of bringing about change in our industry.

Today will see HS2 hold its inaugural health and safety supply chain conference. Hundreds of businesses from the wider supply chain will be represented at this conference, from the CEO of large construction firms through to some of the smallest SMEs. Our message is clear: we need to work together to effect real change.

Transforming teams

At our conference we will be joined by ex-RAF pilot Mandy Hickson. She was the second woman to fly a Tornado GR4 on the frontline, completing three tours of duty and 45 missions over Iraq. She can give our supply chain a keen insight into the importance of keeping a calm head in high-pressure situations.

Hearing her story, what strikes me is how she talks about building teams that share. Teams that aren’t embarrassed about failure or going through difficult issues – a divorce, a sick family member, or feeling depressed. Openness can be the difference between teams succeeding or failing. This is the kind of cultural change we need to help bring about.

HS2 Ltd can do our part as a client to a large supply chain. By designing health and safety into the programme, and by selecting safe and healthy construction methods from the start, we will help reduce ill health in the workforce.

But cultural change can just be as important. This doesn’t just mean radical top-down policies; it can be about how we treat our colleagues.

This is our message to the hundreds of businesses we are speaking to today. It’s the message we want to take to the suppliers that hope to work with HS2 in future. It’s not just about applying policies and rules; it’s about creating culture and understanding.

As an industry, we shout proudly about the importance of keeping our people safe. I want us to shout loudly about keeping our people healthy and well too.

Emma Head is safety and assurance director at HS2

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