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As far as safety goes, Oz rules

AGENDA - Why are UK sites more dangerous than their antipodean counterparts, asks Nicholas Pigott?

I LEFT England in January of 2003 for pastures new to see if Australia's construction industry was as great as I had heard.

I had worked in the construction industry in the UK from the age of 16. After school I had joined a London-based family construction business, did my apprenticeship at the British Library in King's Cross, and gained my carpentry, joinery and construction NCVQ in 1994.

After 15 years I decided to venture across to Asia and Australia to broaden my horizons and gain a comparison of practices and safety within the industry.

For the past 18 months I have been working in Melbourne for Leighton Contractors as a site manager on the $700 million (£270 million) Spencer Street Station project, which needs to be ready in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games.The station (renamed Southern Cross Station) is the main link between Melbourne and other interstates.

The development is a public private partnership with the Government, linking the central business district of Melbourne with the docklands.

The architects are the Australian practice Daryl Jackson and British practice Grimshaw.The architectural design is an innovative masterpiece that boasts an array of glass buildings and an egg crate-shaped perforated roof that spans the station and is engineered to filter the exhaust fumes from the trains without the use of visible duct suspension. It is a landmark for Melbourne and a showpiece for the world to admire.

Since the development began in 2002, 2,500 tradesmen have been site-safety inducted.

Given the complexities of such a large and fast-moving project, the working conditions are excellent. Generally, the site safety and working practices in place throughout Australia are 95 per cent effective and flawless in comparison with those in England. Every conceivable element of the project is identified, procured and implemented, from management and design levels down to the cleanliness of the site amenities and the welfare of all workers.

The state of Victoria is driven predominantly by the construction, forestry, mining and engineering unions. I have never seen such good conditions in my life.'Clinical' is the word that springs to mind.Working a 36-hour week, workers in Australia live to work, not work to live as we do in England.

Dining on king-size prawns, joints of lamb, beef and salad prior to bank holidays is incentive enough to be part of such a fine industry.

As an Englishman I wish I was as proud to be part of the British construction industry as I am of the Australian.But having had the pleasure of working in Melbourne I feel it would take a considerable amount of time for me to readjust to the way of thinking and project managing in Britain.

Admittedly, the UK has a bigger population and greater demand for production output. But since we have been excavating foundations for centuries, this does not excuse our appalling safety record.

From my personal experiences in London, finishing a project on time seems to override safety and the measures stipulated by the Health and Safety Executive.We are driven simply by deadlines.

Why can't we take a leaf out of Australia's book? Australia is a mere 220 years old and developed initially by us, the British.What went wrong?