As SGB group health and safety adviser Neil Murray briefs Alasdair Reisner on the importance of leadership in the firm and why, for safety, he thinks method statements are often not worth the paper they are written on
'ARE YOU mad or what?'As questions go Neil Murray's colleagues in the Health and Safety Executive could have had a point when he moved departments to work as a construction inspector in the early 1980s.
Back then a toll of between 200 to 300 deaths in the industry each year made the life of a construction inspector a thankless task. So what was Mr Murray thinking of when he lumbered himself with such a burden?
'In terms of my own personal enjoyment it was the best time ever, because it was such a challenge.You felt there was really something to get on with, ' he says.
Move forward nearly 25 years and the move makes more sense. Since that time Mr Murray has worked as a principal inspector on the largest single construction project ever carried out in the UK - the building of the Channel Tunnel.
In the last year of the project before it was handed over to Her Majesty's Rail Inspectorate, there were no serious accidents.
In the previous six there had been eight fatalities.
From the Chunnel he moved on to become the HSE's head of construction policy.While some might find the detail of health and safety policy dry and dusty, Mr Murray speaks on the subject with zeal.
'The thing is, you have to have the right regulation.That should be obvious. If you have sloppy, ill-considered regulation it is not going to work because the bad companies are not going to comply and the good firms will be in danger of over-compliance.'
Mr Murray says the key to ensuring good legislation is to make sure those working under it have a full understanding of their responsibilities.
'Failure of regulations comes from a lack of understanding - whether deliberate, because people haven't bothered to read the rules, or unintentional, because they are unaware of the existence of regulations.
He highlights current work on the Construction Design and Management, Construction Health Safety and Welfare and Work at Height regulations as a examples of why it is important to get the right message across to the industry through consultation.
But for such an ardent campaigner on safety issues, Mr Murray claims that after these regulations have been updated it may be time for a rest for the lawmakers.
'I think that once they finish this review into CDM and CHS&W regulations the best thing the legislators could do is stop.'
He believes that with reinforced rules on the horizon the industry should be given time to familiarise itself with them, rather than facing constantly changing safety demands.
'The industry has been subject to a lot of change. I cannot think of another major industry that has been hit by a set of regulations like CDM' Indeed Mr Murray has had a particularly close relationship with CDM as the regulations came in the month he started his construction policy role at the executive.
'It caused so much trouble when it came in, mainly because of the planning supervisor role. Clients and designers were all complaining about their new duties.'
Mr Murray says that some of these problems are still being felt, admitting that he is happy that current consultation on CDM may rein in planning supervisors, a role that he feels is unnecessary.
'Although I won't be popular with planning supervisors for saying that, ' he admits.
During his time at the HSE Mr Murray was closely involved in the development of the forthcoming Work at Height regulations. Regular travel to Luxembourg to negotiate the regulations with his European counterparts during that time paid off as the draft that has come into being is little different from the one created in those technical meetings.
But all things must come to an end and, when an offer came in from SGB to become the firm's group health and safety adviser, Mr Murray decided to grasp the opportunity. So why leave the executive and move across to the private sector?
'When you are an inspector you cannot actually know whether you are having an effect because you tend to be in and out of firms' His move to SGB gave Mr Murray this real chance to instill change and watch with satisfaction as it brings improvements to the firm's safety record.
To him, the key factor in ensuring that these improvements come through is the leadership.
'You've got to start at the top. Leadership is important, and involves communication, competence and control.You get leadership at many levels through the company once you make people more competent because they understand what to do' As if to underline the importance of creating competence Mr Murray opens up a weighty ring binder on the desk. It is SGB's safety manual - a comprehensive set of safety guidelines that is given to every manager and supervisor in the company, along with four full days of training to get to grips with it.These staff members can then call down information from the guide for pretty much any set of circumstances they come across in the job.
The basis of the manual is on risk assessment, a subject that Mr Murray says is vital to improving the industries safety record but also much misunderstood.
'Everyone talks about risk assessment but few people understand it.
You've got to train people how to do it or they will never do it right.'
People must be doing something right as SGB has recorded a 40 per cent drop in its accident rate over the past four years.
But one thing Mr Murray does not attribute this success to is the use of method of statements.While often demanded as the prescribed way of ensuring safety on site, they do not get his vote.
'People always talk about method statements. In my own opinion when it comes to safety I have never read a method statement worth reading. Risk assessment is what you should be doing. Everyone is getting fixated on things like 'put nut A into hole B'. But what has that got to do with safety? I say forget about them.Method statements have a role for specialist work when you want to see what the actual method is. For most work you should know what the activity is, who is doing it, who is at risk and what controls you need in place' So, far from being someone who 'must be mad' as his colleagues thought back in the '80s, Mr Murray seems to be in full control of his senses.With his role at SGB and as the new head of the Senior Safety Advisors Group this can only be good for both the firm and the industry in general.