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How to get the message across on site


Without good communication, safety on site is going nowhere.But personal criticism is rarely welcomed. So what is the best way of telling someone they are working unsafely?

Joanna Booth investigates

NO ONE likes being in the wrong. But even worse than being in the wrong is being told you're in the wrong.

So it is understandable that putting people right about safety on a construction site can be a tricky call, and demands the kind of diplomacy required of Prince Phillip's press office.The success or failure of giving advice rests on the way it is put across. Construction News asked experts for the best ways to sugar the pill.

Team effort at Barhale

'There is a reason that football teams have both a coach and a manager, ' says Andy Dodman, Barhale regional health and safety manager.'There will always be people who just do not feel comfortable with bosses. But so long as they get the correct information, it is not important who it comes from.'

Barhale employs four safety coaches, former site workers, to tour sites giving ground-level safety advice to operatives.The concept was generated in 1998 on a tunnelling job for Thames Water, where a number of accidents had convinced management that a fresh approach to safety was needed.

'We decided to go for a bottom-up approach, rather than top-down, ' says Mr Dodman.'Our coaches are experienced workers with good communication skills - people the lads could respect.

'The big thing is being able to talk to the men on their own level, ' says Charlie Martin, safety coach for the south-east region.'We speak their language and they know we've been on site and know what we are talking about.We have probably made the mistakes already.'

Michael May, safety coach for the north-west, says a softly-softly approach gets the best results.

'There's no point going in all gung-ho and losing their trust. I lead with open questions like: 'What's the worst that could happen in this situation?' to encourage people to open up.We praise good work as well - you can't always be negative.You have to judge how each person will react. Some people stand on their dignity and you have to be careful not to offend them.'

The coaches don't do audits or carry clipboards and all reporting is anonymous, a measure intended to combat the unnecessary fear of reprisals which might prevent workers from reporting incidents or issues.

The coaches have found that workers do now come to them with safety and welfare questions.

And it is successful.Over the past four years Barhale's accident frequency rate has decreased one hundredfold while turnover has quadrupled.

The safety coaches haven't only been useful in reducing accident rates.

They can also pick up on occupational health issues.

'It doesn't just stop there, ' says Mike Belson, Barhale's health, safety and environmental manager.'We have picked up on general ailments, such as eye problems and diabetes.'

Changing behaviour at HBG

Lack of knowledge isn't the only reason accidents happen on site. Routine, habit and a lack of concentration can lead to serious injury.HBG is trying to influence the behaviour of staff and subcontractors with a course designed to wake them up to the way they think about safety on a daily basis.

Initially HBG put its own staff through training sessions run by Eddie Woods, a motivational speaker with years of experience working on offshore rigs.These were so well received the programme was extended to subcontractors.

'The key to improving subcontractor safety is to make it as easy as possible for them, ' says Chris Jones, head of training.'We are a large company with the infrastructure and resources to organise this sort of thing but it is hard for smaller firms to cope.'

Seminars aren't always the most popular training method, as it is easy for participants to become bored and switch off.Mr Jones believes their effectiveness is down to the personality of the trainer.

'Eddie keeps it simple and uses a lot of humour.We know that the usual information retention rate from seminars is 30 per cent. But people who came to the course three years ago still talk about it.'

Mr Woods says he uses anecdotes and humour to catch people's attention.

His advice for dealing with unsafe behaviour on site includes: ask open questions; focus on the positive;

keep body language smooth as jerky movements look aggressive; and tailor advice to the individual's motivation. Some people work better towards an achievable goal, others when they have to solve a problem.

'The personality of whoever is giving the advice is just as important as the person they're giving it to. Shy people can do a lot non-verbally, for instance just pointing at safety goggles to get a worker to replace them. It is giving them the reminder that matters.'

Avoiding complacency at Costain Costain safety director Peter Fisher believes nothing is as dangerous as thinking you're safe.

'There's a danger of being like Leeds FC - from the 2001 European Cup semi-final to relegation in three years. Just when you think you've made it you're in danger of getting a nasty wake-up call.We can't afford to be complacent, which is why we constantly cajole, implore, remind and refresh everyone on site about safety.'

On-site safety training for Costain staff has been extended to subcontractors, who pay for it at cost price. Costain is also working with the Health and Safety Executive to develop an occupational health management system.Mr Fisher believes the statistics don't tell the whole story.

He says: 'Sometimes the companies that are best at reporting have the worst record.We look for training, experience and pro-active sites.'

Stent - the power of pressure

STENT now rewards its workers for safety, rather than productivity.The level of bonus payments, traditionally based on output, is instead calculated from the results of the weekly site safety audit.

'If they won't do it for the morality, they'll do it for the money, ' says Jim De Waele, Stent operations director (right).

'We have always told the men that health and safety was the most important thing but when their bonus payments were based on productivity our actions were demonstrating a very strong subliminal message to the contrary.

'The peer pressure element really encourages good behaviour. If a worker sees someone doing something wrong on site he won't just ignore it.Now they say: 'Oi, stop, you're costing me money'.'

Stent next proposes to change the way managers talk to operatives on site about safety.The company wants to flesh out the bare bones of senior managers' site inspections, using the process not merely to report on safety but to interact with operatives. Feedback is the key to the new drive.

Stent is running a total of four training sessions for its senior managers, helping them to react immediately to problems and deal with them on the spot rather than merely taking note of them.A ninestep process aims to guide them through.

'We want managers to approach workers the moment they see something unsafe, but it doesn't work if they just walk up and call someone a bloody idiot, ' says Mr De Waele.'It's about trying to break ingrained habits and making people focus on safety rather than speed or ease.'

Stent managers are encouraged to follow a nine-step process, designed to get the most out of interactions on site.

1.Stop and Observe People. People may change how they work - if so, ask why.

2. Put People at Ease.Approach with a constructive attitude.

3. Explain what you are doing and why.

Do not criticise.Open a two-way discussion with them.

4.Ask open questions.'What does this job entail?' 'What sort of problems do you have?'This approach avoids confrontation.

5. Praise aspects of safe behaviour.Use positive comments. For every mistake there are hundreds of safe acts.

6.Ask what is the worst accident that could happen and how.Get the person to think what could go wrong and the possible consequences.What is the worst case scenario?

7.Ask why unsafe behaviour happened.Avoid apportioning blame. Start on a positive note.There is probably a good reason.Get them to explain.

8.Ask them what corrective action is required.They are the experts and may find a better solution than the one you thought of.They are much more committed to conclusions they came to themselves.

9.Get commitment to act.Get the individual to put words into action.