Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to the newest version of your browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of Construction News, please enable cookies in your browser.

Welcome to the Construction News site. As we have relaunched, you will have to sign in once now and agree for us to use cookies, so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Spanswick spreads the safety message


Bovis chairman John Spanswick has fought to transform attitudes to safety both within his company and across the industry. Recently appointed health and safety commissioner, he explains his motives to Emma Crates

ABOUT four years ago, there was a fire alarm at Bovis's Holborn office. John Spanswick, then chief executive of the UK and European business, trooped out of the building along with the rest of his staff.

On a site nearby, a scaffolder, stripped to the waist, was hoisting tubes on a pulley in a precarious fashion.

If he had let go of the rope, the tubes would have crashed down to the pavement.

Even though it was not a Bovis site, Mr Spanswick and a couple of directors started to walk over to the man to warn him of the dangers of his actions. The scaffolder, clearly riled, asked Mr Spanswick who he thought he was to tell him how to do his job.

'I was watching all this, ' says Bovis media relations manager Andrew Bond. 'I thought they were going to end up in a fight.'

Mr Spanswick backed off but soon after 'phoned the chief executive of the medium-sized company running the site, expressing his concerns.

'The guy was really posit ive and said that he would intervene, ' says Mr Spanswick, This is just one example of why safety is not any one person's domain.

It's an indust ry issue.'

Mr Spanswick freely admits that a few years prior to that incident he could have easily turned a blind eye to what was going on. But he has undergone something akin to a religious conversion about safety.

It has affected every aspect of his life. These days, he will not ride in a taxi without a seat belt and is prone to getting into friendly debate with dr ivers refusing to wear one. He can't walk by his neighbour, who m ight be working precariously from an unstable ladder, without stopping to help or persuade h im to do otherwise. And when, as recently happened, he noticed someone on a Bovis site not wearing goggles when they clearly needed to, he could not stop himself from walking up to the man and asking him about his family, and eventually how he would feel if he could not see his two beautiful daughters.

'A few years before that, I may have had a word with the site manager about it - or at best I might have shouted to the man to put his goggles on. But I've come to realise that you can't walk by. There's no point in being arrogant or confrontational. You have to engage hearts and minds, ' he says.

The epiphany happened when Mr Spanswick was present ing his annual report to his Aust ralian bosses on the Lend Lease board roughly five years ago. The board was still reeling from a fatality that had recently occurred on a Bovis site elsewhere in the world.

After the usual issues, statistics, trends, and profits, he added the 'almost statutory comment': 'We will reduce our lost time incidents by 10 per cent.'

One of the directors said: 'John, if you're planning to have 10 per cent fewer incidents, this implies you're still planning on killing people.'

'It made me feel a bit stupid, frankly, ' recalls Mr Spanswick. He withd rew the statement.

This was the beginning of a change which was to sweep through Bovis Lend Lease as the senior executive team realised that they needed to be radically pro-active. And thus Bovis' Incident and Injury Free programme was born.

IIF was conceived by US consultancy JMJ associates, which had worked extensively on safety with energy giants in the petroleum sector but never before with a construction company. In the first phase, Mr Spanswick, who was leading the drive to transform operations in the UK and Europe, underwent a rigorous two-day commitment workshop along with other senior directors. At the end they were asked to stand up and publicly commit to the same values: that everyone has the right to go home and that it's not right to tolerate any injury.

'It's probably the most significant programme that I've ever been on. It had more impact on me personally than any thing else I can recall, ' says Mr Spanswick.

From that moment on he realised that he would have to act and behave differently in all areas of his life if he was to show the required leadership.

He drew up a programme of tasks that would demonstrate to others that he was thinking and acting differently. The senior directors each committed to visiting a certain number of sites a year to discuss the safety agenda. Mr Spanswick committed to visiting 40 projects annually, as well as phon ing up every site which had experienced a reportable incident that week.

'I discussed it with the site. Not in a threatening way, but to try to understand what had happened. To try to see if there was a lesson learned that we could spread round the business. The results were amazing.

I don't like to get too evangelical, ' says Mr Spanswick, 'but people have to see that you're committed.'

This is why he now won't sit on the back of the car without a seat belt on. Safety now has to be a 24-hour commitment at home and at work.

'If, for example, it came out in the press that John Spanswick was injured when his taxi crashed and he wasn't wearing a seat belt, people would say 'well, he doesn't really mean it then, does he?'' These days he is wrestling with not using his handsfree mobile phone facility while driving. It is not yet Bovis policy to forbid the use of hands-free mobiles in cars, but it soon could be.

'We work with BP and their policy is absolute: if you use your mobile in the car, you're sacked. I think that's where we need to go.'

Since the initial commitment workshop for directors, every employee, including office staff, has undergone similar training. The company has also extended the training to 120 chief executives of its key subcontractors in an effort to spread the attitudes throughout its supply chain.

The 'journey', as Mr Spanswick describes it, has not always been easy.

At the very first workshop, one of the directors in charge of the Eu ropean business adm it ted that he could not stand up and give the public commitment because he did not know how it was going to be achieved in his division.

'I saw that as a positive rather than a negative - you can't always get a buy in straightaway, and if you did I would be suspicious, ' he says, adding that after three months of working together his colleague was comfortable giving the commitment.

A statistician looking at Bovis's reports of nearmisses over the last few years may be alarmed that the trend seems to be rising dramatically. But statistics do not tell the whole story. Mr Spanswick has personally done a lot of work to encourage people to own up to near-m iss incidents that in previous eras they may have tried to cover up.

Every near-miss that is reported on a Bovis site undergoes a root cause analysis. The information is circulated across the company's international divisions, along with recommendations about how to prevent similar incidents happening in the future.

Employees also carry out safety audits in regions outside their own division.

Mr Spanswick has also taken his reforming crusade to wider industry. As the former chair of the safety committee of the Major Contractors Group, he suggested that the members should also share nearmiss information.

'There was a gasp of horror, ' recalls Mr Spanswick.

'People said: 'but that's competitive advantage'.' After a 'very short debate', the members agreed that this wasn't the case. Recently, when one of the sites reported a malfunction of a piece of plant equipment, this information was not only taken up with the suppliers, but also fed into the MCG group.

'It wasn't too difficult to get people to agree to do this - that's an easy conversat ion. But it is much more difficult to implement it.'

That, says Mr Spanswick, is the continual challenge. But he is delighted that IIF has also had its converts elsewhere. BAA's mammoth Terminal 5 construction programme adopted IIF mid-project.

A round th ree months ago, Mr Spanswick was appointed health and safety commissioner, one of eight commissioners who represent the industry to the Government.

'When the post came up, I was keen to get involved.

I felt it would give me a platform to assist others on the jou rney that we had to go down, ' says Mr Spanswick.

His role enables him to compare standards across other industries, including the nuclear and petroleum sectors.

While Mr Spanswick is encouraged by improving statistics on site fatalities (this year, the number was a record low at 59), he emphasises that indust ry cannot rest on its laurels.

'We are still hurting and killing people, and until we reach the stage that we are not, none of us can rest, ' he says. 'It will require continual renewing of not just comm itment but of act ion by individuals and leaders.'

Whenever he goes to site he asks his colleagues what they have done in the last week that has posit ively influenced safety. He interrogates himself personally on a regular basis, often talking to JMJ founder Jay Greenspan for guidance.

'I sometimes reach a stage, probably every three to four months, when I say, hang on a minute - am I really doing any thing or have I just become comfortable? You need to constantly interrogate yourself as to whether you are actually achieving anything. If you don't, it's a waste of time to be honest.'

John Spanswick on?

CSCS cards: 'I was one of the first in Bovis to take the test. The CSCS card was never meant to be the total solution. But it does mean that people undergo a minimum training in safety and also ensures that there's an emphasis on validating that they have the appropriate skills to do the work they do.'

Corporate manslaughter: 'If a board of directors was to contemplate being sued - say for £15 million - it would concentrate their minds a great deal more than one of their directors being up for prosecution. If an individual was up for manslaughter, bigger companies would just build up the necessary legal framework to fight it off.'

Health and safety inspectors: 'People say that if we had another 1,000 health and safety inspectors, the problem would be solved. But they can't be everywhere all the time. People forget that 70 per cent of reportable incidents occur in organisations employing less than 10 people. If we don't address that side of the industry, we're never going to crack it.'