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Health and Safety spotlight

Site fatalities are much more than statistics to those managers who lose an operative on site.

It’s the day every construction site manager dreads. The day when word comes in that there’s been an accident on site.

Dave will never forget when one of his friends died while working for his company. “I got a phone call to say the guy had been badly injured in an accident involving an excavator,” he recalls. “By the time I got to the site he was dead. I’d known him for many years and I was absolutely gutted.”

But Dave had to push his feelings to one side. He was the boss and had to take charge.

“Obviously at the time I had to maintain some sort of composure because of what was going on on site and having to deal with it,” he says. “It didn’t hit me so much then but later when I had to go and identify the body and I was alone I broke down.”

Every year site managers find themselves in the same position as Dave. Despite widespread efforts to improve health and safety, dozens of workers are still killed on construction sites, and many more badly injured.

When there’s a death on site all eyes properly turn to management, and sometimes it will certainly be at fault. But no company can ever hope to eliminate risk from construction.

Whatever the situation however, how do accidents impact personally and professionally on the managers who have a worker die on their watch?

Coping with shock

Graham O’Neill, now safety director for John Reilly Civil Engineering, has worked with firms in the aftermath of a number of fatalities during his career.

He says that generally, when he has arrived at the scene he has found both managers and workers in a state of shock. “When you go to any site where someone’s died people are devastated,” he says. “It’s plain to see on their faces and it’s difficult to get a coherent response.

“When someone has gone and died and it’s happened on your site, there’s the shock of one of your colleagues being killed and also the shock of it happening as part of the work you carry out day to day. They might feel responsible and it’s hard for what has happened to sink in.

“At the same time, there are things that have to be done and one of the main challenges a manager faces is getting them to prepare for an investigation when their colleague has died.”

In the immediate aftermath of a fatal accident and initial phases of an investigation a site manager is likely to be the focus of attention, says Mark Cottriall, the Health and Safety Executive’s principal construction inspector for Lancashire and Cumbria.

“After that it depends on the size of the company – it may there are managers more senior than them,” he says. “But if it’s a small company, perhaps with a single director then they will be the focus.”

While trying to deal with the shock of losing a colleague, managers help police and safety inspectors with their inquiries and face the possibility the case could end up in court.

On top of that they must look after their workforce, dealing with bereaved families, plus also look after themselves which might mean counselling or time off. Mr Cottriall has been called in to investigate the aftermath of several fatal accidents.

The Health and Safety Executive usually arrives within just a few hours of an incident taking place.

“The first thing you tend to notice is how quiet it is – work has almost always stopped and people are sitting around,” he says. “At that stage people are in shock, very subdued and almost looking for something to do.”

The first priority is to make sure the site is safe and the site manager will be involved in that. “What we’d then be looking to the manager to do is to help us identify who was working on that site, what they were doing, how the job had been planned, where all the relevant documents were,” he says. “But the first thing they have got to cope with is quite probably being interviewed by the police.”

He continues: “If there are senior managers in the company then they will be getting involved and the insurance company may be involved too. They’re going to start dealing with a lot of pressure from a lot of different angles.”

This is bound to be strain during the days and weeks after a fatal accident and later when the site is re-opened. Managers need to make sure staff are focused on what they’re doing. If people aren’t concentrating there’s always the risk of another accident.

Long term trauma

The long term impact of being site manager when an employee is killed or seriously injured can be even worse for some, explains Tony O’Brien, secretary of the Construction Safety Campaign.

“I know people who witnessed fatal accidents years ago who still have sleepless nights,” he says.

“When it happened to me I was traumatised. Seeing something like that is an experience you never forget.”

The HSE’s Mr Cottriall adds: “I have seen site managers or foremen blame themselves. They will take personal responsibility for what happened even if it wasn’t their fault, particularly if they knew the individual well. It can have a long-term impact on them.”

One health and safety manager who declined to be named described to CN the lasting impact of two key managers at a leading construction firm after a worker was killed in a fall. “The project leader was on the verge of jacking it all in – that’s how much it affected him. The site manger left to work for himself but I met him again recently at a health and safety seminar.

“We were looking at figures for reported fatalities and that one death was in there. I looked at him and he welled up again and that was nearly 18 months later.”

Such behaviour can sadly reveal a manager who may be struggling to fully acknowledge the psychological impact a site death has had on them, explains another health and safety expert – who also asked not to be named.

“I think a lot of them put on some sort of brave face. There’s this macho type attitude in the construction industry where they’ve got to show they’re tough and not affected by things but they certainly are affected.

“Often they seem to be coping with things but that’s the way they have to be. They have to jump up and carry on working. But the memory is always there – it’s something you never forget and it must affect the way they work in the future.”

Long-term effects need not always be negative however. Others react by vowing a similar occurrence will never happen on their site again, and become health & safety champions.

Byron Broadstock, Welsh director for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) is adamant his experience of a number of fatal accidents early on in his career had a huge impact on his work.

The accidents happened in the 1970s but he says they have shaped his approach to health and safety to the present day.

During his last on-site role – a £45 million, three-year job involving three different contractors - he introduced new reporting procedures for potentially unsafe situations. “We only had one reported accident during the whole job, which was a back strain,” he said.

One of his roles at CECA is helping to provide members with up-to-date health and safety information and promoting best practice. “That gives me a lot of personal satisfaction,” he says. With his background, you can much more readily understand why.

Managerial shockwaves

Often, a site death does more than invigorate managers however. It also often leads to senior management also going through health and safety policy and procedures with a fine tooth comb.

Dr Billy Hare, a senior research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University is a former site manager turned academic and has specialised in researching the management of health and safety in construction.

He says: “It is a sad fact that most organisations will pay lip service to health & safety. There may be sincerity at board level, but if everything is going reasonably well health & safety performance won't be questioned. It is only after this painful event that questions are asked.”

It is only then, he says, that senior managers seek detailed reports on health & safety performance, physically halt a job if there is a problem or send out unequivocal messages that safety is paramount.
“This may sound a little cynical,” he continues. “But find the top performers and do some digging. I'm sure you will find, virtually every time, that a major event in the organisation's living memory has been the trigger.

“I put this theory to a panel at an industry conference a few years ago, only to be told I was being negative. However, after the conference, one of the panel members told me in private that interviews he had conducted with company directors on this subject were all consistent with what I hypothesised. The theory is not mine, it's more of a common truth.”

He continues: “I am sure there will be organisations and individuals who are passionate about health & safety without having the 'benefit' of such an unfortunate experience. And they will, no doubt, challenge what I have said. But I am confident that they are the exception rather than the rule.”

Leading for change

There is more to taking health & safety seriously than having the right processes. True sign-up to safety often comes down to personal leadership – that is, how seriously senior managers personally take keeping their staff safe.

Brian Everard is executive director CECA and former MD of Geoffrey Osbourne. During his career he has experienced three fatalities on site which he says has placed health and safety centre stage in his personal priorities as a senior manager.

“Witnessing two deaths on site under the age of 21 made me super conscious about health and safety and that has stayed with me throughout my career,” he says. “Safety was at the forefront of my mind on every job. When I first became group MD I would check: are there any issues that could cause an injury or fatality? I once stopped a job because a subcontractor wasn’t following the correct procedures and threatened to throw them off.”

He strongly believes that “safety has got to be lead from the top”.

“The ‘no blame’ culture works as workers will talk to their employers,” he continues. “The one man bands, the black economy – that’s where the problem lies. The language barrier with some migrant workers is also an issue. There needs to be a behavioural and cultural change.

“Certain clients are now much more focused on health and safety – it’s the top of their agenda. Clients like the Highways Agency and Network Rail have improved safety measures.”

Living with the effects

In the end, the death on Dave’s site was officially found to have been an accident and investigators said the correct health and safety procedures had been followed.

But Dave admits it has made him extra safety conscious: “I am always looking around and checking that everything’s in order,” he says.

“It affected me personally more than anything else. I still think of the guy who was a real character and whenever I pass the site it brings it all back. It’s never out of my mind.”

It happened to me: Byron Broadstock

It was an accident on a major highways project that hammered home the health and safety lessons chartered civil engineer Byron Broadstock says he has lived by ever since.

“We were building a large viaduct and I was responsible for supervising the bridge work with a team of engineers and inspectors working for me,” he says of the incident that happened early in his career.

“During the night shift – when we weren’t on duty – one of the contractors fell 90 foot in between some concrete beams. We had no idea that the contractor was carrying out this type of operation during the night and if it had happened during the day I am confident we would have prevented it.

“I got the call at 6.30am and came to site. I was upset and didn’t want to go near the place where it had happened. Later I drove up in my Land Rover and they flagged me over and asked me to drive the body to the site office.

“The chap that died was 32 and had a wife and two small children. I really felt for them especially because I knew it could have been avoided.”

He continues: “There are people working on sites now who think accidents won’t happen to them. In my capacity as a senior supervisor I’ve always tried to get it into people’s minds that someone could die on their site today - because I’ve been there and seen it happen.”

Byron Broadstock is Welsh director for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association

It happened to me: Brian Everard

Brian Everard, former MD of Geoffrey Osbourne, has had three experiences with fatalities on site during his career.

“The first two were in my early days in the industry as a site engineer. A scaffolder fell seven floors after severe gales had damaged some of the points. The second happened after temporary works collapsed on guy fell during a concrete pour – he was taken to hospital with a reinforced bar lodged in his chest.

“Then a few years ago three members of our gang were killed instantly on the M3 after a lorry driver fell asleep and crashed into them. A fourth was seriously injured.”

He says the experience didn’t just change his managerial style, but changed him personally, especially as a result of speaking to the families involved. “The emotions its leaves you with is very traumatic.

It’s distressing at all levels and especially the effect it has on the families. For six months after the incident on the M3 my colleagues and I made weekly visits to the bereaved wives to offer our support.
“Two of the families were very receptive but the third bereaved wife was very bitter - resented us at first, almost accused us of his death. But after a few weeks she became more positive and welcomed us.

“Talking to the families helps you as an individual but also sends out a message from the company or organisation that they actually care. Going to three funerals is also tough.”

Brian Everard is an executive director at the Civil Engineering Contractors Association


  • Construction had the highest total number of fatalities out of the UK’s main industrial sectors in 2006/2007. It had the second highest death rate after agriculture.

  • 77 construction workers were fatally injured in 2006/2007 – that is 17 more than the 60 people killed the previous year and equivalent to 3.7 per 100,000 workers.

  • Of the 77 who were killed, 50 were employees and 27 self-employed 23 died as a result of falling from a height, 16 were hit by a moving or falling object, 10 died after contact with electricity.

  • Other causes of death include being struck by a moving vehicle or being trapped by something collapsing or overturning.

  • 38 were ‘skilled construction and building trades’, 14 were labourers, 10 were construction operatives such as scaffolders, and 3 were managers

  • A further 19 construction workers were killed in the three months from April to June this year, according to the most recent quarterly statistics

Source: Health and Safety Executive

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