Partnering might be good for contractors' prots, but what does it do to health and safety performance? David Bell looks at the results from a recent study carried out at Amec for the HSE
PARTNERING is a good thing, of course. The very word evokes feelings of trust and loyalty in an industry which is more used to pointing the finger of blame. But does partnering also influence safety performance? The Health and Safety Executive recently comm issioned research to answer this quest ion.
This was first time that the HSE looked at partnering from the point of view of the contractor rather than the client. It selected to work with Amec as a major exponent of the partnering system in the UK, putting six sites under scrutiny.
By its nature, partnering allows for greater co-operation between contractor and client and should, at least in theory, enable better decision making when health and safety problems are encountered. In addition, because partnering agreements are free of some of the cost constraints of f ixed-price contracts, there should be greater resources available for new methods of working and technical innovation. Certainly the study showed that there was overriding support from those involved for the advantages of long-term partnering agreements and the openness, integration and sharing that are a feature of such arrangements, creating a positive joint approach that leads to improved performance.
For Partnership Sourcing, the report's authors, this study contained few surprises. Operations director David Hawkins comments: 'HSE's first premise was that health and safety performance was determined by clients, but this report found the contractor or collaboration leading.'
Good relationships developed through partnering enable knowledge-sharing and collaborative problem-solving as ways of driving accident rates down. In practice this means that a number of health and safety management tasks, such as planning and health and safety reviews, have to be well integrated between client and contractor.
The reaction from clients was positive, with one commenting, 'it stops the discussion from blaming each other and focuses on the root cause'. As might be expected, sharing was found to work better in the longer term. 'The greater successes were where there were long-term relationships, ' agrees Amec's head of safety, health and environment, Jason Rowley.
Good leadership is also crucial to driving change, and the relationship between the contractor's and client's senior representat ives is key. On one project, they actually shared both an office and a telephone. Mr Rowley adds: 'It all extends from leadership. You have to demonstrate what you're saying by what you do. You can't force someone to be collaborative. Both sides have to want to be.'
As any safety manager will tell you, building a strong culture is far more effective than relying on a framework of safety rules and regulat ions. But Mr Rowley argues you have to be careful to get the balance right. 'You can't ditch the procedures, but those things alone aren't enough. The cultural stuff is another layer on top of the rules, ' he says.
The no-blame culture - that holy grail of good safety management - requires open knowledge sharing between client and contractor with no commercial restraints. But for Amec 'no blame' doesn't mean that no one takes responsibility. According to Mr Rowley, the idea is to get away from the old rancorous way of simply pinning the blame for an accident on the nearest individual, instead looking at all the other factors involved.
On all the projects examined by the study, real emphasis was placed on induction and safety training, particularly for temporary workers and new starts, and extensive use was made of publicity material such as posters and newsletters to reinforce safety messages.
Technology was also used as a means of eliminating hazards.
This figured strongly in the water industry, where remotely operated machines are being used to reduce man access in confined spaces and step irons have been eliminated in manholes to prevent untrained personnel working in them.
There were some exemplary displays of good thinking: for example, a football card scheme where good health and safety behaviour on site is rewarded by a green card while bad behaviour gets yellow and red cards (ultimately meaning exclusion from the site) is being widely adopted, as is the use of green hard hats to identify new starters and temporary visitors.
Practices such as these really come into their own where there is a large subcontract or labour agency element to the workforce, although some of these new methods are not without a degree of controversy. Some workers have been known to down tools when such systems are introduced.
But on the whole, new safety initiatives have been well met by Amec's workforce. Mr Rowley says that any cynicism or resistance was very much in the minority: 'People are throwing themselves into it, ' he adds.
Par tner ing also allows the cont ractor to push th rough some really radical new ideas in health and safety thinking. For instance, the Voice (Views of Operatives in the Construction Environment) system is a tool for motivating the workforce.
Voice committees, with representatives from both the direct and subcontract workforce, collaborate in decision-making on health and safety issues and even visit other sites to carry out hazard spotting. Voice has been readily accepted by the line managers, though Mr Rowley admits that at first it was difficult to get people involved.
In the futu re, Mr Rowley sees more oppor tunit ies to develop good safety practice through partnering. 'The behavioural and cultural work can be done on their own, but they are better done as par t of a par tnership, ' he says. Mr Hawk ins thinks many improvements achieved under partnering will filter down into fixed-price work. 'Some people are moving into collaborative relationships even if they don't call it partnering, ' he adds.
This study, published earlier this year, used face-to-face interviews with senior Amec staff and client's representat ives.
Six UK projects for clients in a range of fields from water to oil were evaluated. The research was carried out by Partnership Sourcing Ltd (a joint venture project of the Confederation of British Industry and the Department for Industry) and peer reviewed by the Cranfield School of Management.
Case study: M60 widening
Project: M60 widening junctions 5 to 8
Client: Highways Agency (Consultant: Mouchel Parkman)
Contractor: Amec Construction in joint venture with Alfred McAlpine
Form of Contract: New Engineering Contract
Key health and safety points:
Comprehensive induction training
Output from monthly meetings is fed into toolbox talks
Method statements are the cornerstone of the health and safety process
Subcontractors prequalify on previous health and safety performance as well as commercial performance
Joint venture employs a full-time dedicated health and safety adviser
Near-misses are investigated and data fed back to training
Safety forms a routine part of the planning process
Open discussion about health and safety issues, particularly where there are extra costs
Value engineering initiatives have improved health and safety and reduced risk