Is it possible for contractors to invest in the technology and systems required to make their businesses more sustainable in the long term, when many of them are simply considering how best to control costs to make sure they make it through the financial downturn in the shorter term?
That has been the big question ever since the first rumblings started to be felt that not everything was right in the construction economy.
The answer, in broad terms at least, seems to be yes. Last year, for the first time, Construction News set about compiling an anonymous survey of senior executives at the Top 100 contractors, polling them on how they had been responding within their own businesses to meet the challenges of corporate social responsibility in areas such as environmental performance, people, training, health and safety, and diversity.
At the time the intention was merely to provide a benchmark that in later years we could use to see how the industry had improved (or fallen back) on a series of key metrics.
What we couldn’t have predicted was that the results for 2008 would also provide us with a quick ready-reckoner as to whether the industry had let its CSR commitments slip as the credit crunch began to bite.
The results show that the industry’s big names are managing to plot a course that allows them to deal with the market downturn while maintaining their CSR focus.
The results of the 2008 survey show a significant increase in the number of firms prepared to put down in words what they would expect to achieve within their organisations in terms of CSR performance, with 87.5 per cent having formally published CSR policies.
While this figure is encouraging, less than half the firms polled (44 per cent) allowed any independent monitoring of their performance in relation to their policy statements. Unless the industry, which in the past has suffered from a poor image in terms of its sustainability credentials, wants to be accused of “greenwashing” it figures, it is vital that more firms volunteer for external auditing of the way they run their businesses.
One of the key strands of CSR that has particular resonance for the construction industry is health and safety. It is up to the main contractors to lead the way in driving down accident and illness rates.
It’s disappointing, then, that the results for accident frequency rates show a slight setback from last year’s average figure of 0.28 accidents per 100,000 hours worked, with the figure now rising to 0.31.
However, this is still thought to be significantly below the figures for the wider construction industry where anecdotal evidence suggests that a frequency of more than 1 is the norm.
The figures also suggest a fall off in the use of free healthcare screening for employees by contractors.
A total of 62.5 per cent of firms provide this service, compared with 84.6 per cent last year.
The relatively small number of firms answering the question last year, however, may have artificially distorted the previous result, particularly as, it could be argued, the small number that did respond were more likely to be those that had put such measures in place.
There was better news on employee absence through illness, where the average number of days taken off by employees at responding firms was down from 4.62 days to 4.21 days.
There were also contrasting results when it came to staff training, where a doubling of budgets coincided with a drop in the number of training days provided per employee from 5.43 to 3.08.
Perhaps firms were reluctant to lose staff to training at a time when they needed to make the most of their resources, but if they were going to lose them they wanted to ensure that the training they received was of a high standard.
Firms polled also offered an average of 31 apprenticeship places last year, which, if the figure is consistent across the whole top 100, will bring a vitally important influx of 3,100 new workers.
Firms were also asked about how much they spent on research and development. It is an area in which the industry has previously been poor and this is backed up by the results this year. An average of just 0.54 per cent of turnover was spent on R&D by those polled. With the moves towards the use of more sustainable building products and offsite manufacture, it will be interesting to see whether this figure improves in future years.
Membership of the Construction Skills Certification Scheme continued to rise among leading firms, with card holding by site staff rising to 83.7 per cent from 81.99 per cent last year.
A slight rise in the major firms’ employment of women to 15.91 per cent from 15.11 per cent is to be welcomed, but there was a decline in the employment of workers from ethnic minorities, down to just over five per cent.
If this statistic is correct, then there is now a wide gulf between where the industry stands and where it should be, with the 2001 census recording 12.5 per cent of the population coming from ethnic backgrounds.
Much of the talk about sustainability has concentrated on environmental concerns and the last year has seen some pretty bold target setting as the Government revealed its Strategy for Sustainable Construction.
The strategy set a target for a 50 per cent drop in the production of waste from the construction industry by 2012. The Construction News survey found that while only 31 per cent of firms have set themselves targets for reducing their waste to zero, this is still almost double last year’s figure of 16 per cent.
There was also improvement in the percentage of firms – up to 69 per cent from 62 per cent in 2007 – reporting that that they trained their staff to reduce their carbon emissions from their work activities, another key strand of the sustainable construction strategy.
But the greatest improvement was in the use of sustainable timber. From 1 April 2009 all timber used on public sector sites must come from sustainable sources, but the firms responding to the survey are ahead of the game: every one said that all of their timber was now sustainability certified.