Construction Health & Safety Red Tape is Alive and Kicking


Just how measurable is health and safety?

How much is safe enough?

And how effective is comprehensive form filling, to a regimented design that must be your firm’s, and no-one else’s?

These are important and controversial questions that have sparked a lively debate among the safety consultants and internal safety managers within the construction forum of the website. The HSE itself would do well to heed it and ponder how to act – it is, after all, under instructions from Government to light a bonfire of red tape. Clearly those at the front line doubt that this is happening.

These frustrated individuals bemoan the tendency to jettison common sense and simply concentrate mindlessly on ticking boxes: as well as trying to quantify the unmeasurable. Too many online consultancy operations concentrate on selling such form completion, and do not offer the much more valuable hands-on support on site.

An example given by one safety consultant was that he lost a valuable account with a building contractor, when it was told that it had to use its client’s health and safety consultants so that all systems confirmed exactly to their own.

He understandably describes this attitude as “arrogant and pathetic”.  Why should this client assume that it has a better handle on building safety than a professional contractor? As he points out, a healthy safety culture must allow for initiative and ability – and the person closest to the work is likely to have a better understanding of the business requirements than some third party.

When a client appoints a contractor, it should do so on the basis that this is a professional operator with the appropriate standards, and whose managers know what they are doing. If the client then insists ‘my way is better than yours’ and then imposes it, what does that do to the relationship, and does it actually weaken the quality of the safety measures that are put in place?

Statements written after completion

A worrying issue has been observed by several safety professionals, who speak of big builders who have asked sub-contractors for their method statements and safe systems of work using the builder’s documents. This maybe seems not unreasonable: except that in each case the job had already been completed, with the sub-contractors having used their own (perfectly acceptable) systems, in which their workers had been appropriately trained. The builders issued an ultimatum: you must now complete all of our forms (which the contractors had never seen before that point): or you will not be paid.

This sort of bullying behaviour and ‘after the event’ Risk Analysis Management is surely what HSE should investigate and stamp out. It gives the construction safety movement a bad name: and it is hard and expensive for SMEs to live with.

What Price Initiative?

Older hands recall that initiative used to be encouraged, and control was decentralised so that departments and individuals could achieve their safety goals individually with the ultimate aim being “goal congruence” for the greater good of the organisation.

The fear now is that people in positions of authority are imposing rigid, unyielding systems that do not allow for the possibility that things will change and that better alternatives may exist.

It is also suggested by some that CITB, IOSH and other organisations are institutionalising such approaches by seeking to sell SSMS or SSSTS, and other training and certification.

It seems that on too many sites there are unqualified people insisting that trivial activities require a written Risk Assessment and Method Statement. This is an unfair imposition on one or two-person subcontractors who are expected to produce as much documentation as the largest international building firm.

Example: a sole trading expert plasterer who was due to carry out two days’ work on site, was forced by the principal contractor’s health and safety people to prove his ‘competence’ by attending a 2-day training course – at his own expense – then providing detailed method statements such as what first aid and welfare he would offer, and what he would do to ensure safe vehicle movement.  

Covering your Back

In mitigation of such excessive activity, it has been suggested that the law is at fault. Section 3 of the Health & Safety at Work Act makes clients and principal contractors liable for the welfare of people directly or indirectly under their control. They therefore feel more secure if all paperwork has been completed in their own way.

It is certainly galling for a responsible subcontractor that has engaged specialist construction safety consultants, like McCormack Benson Health & Safety, to find that their client seeks to overrule them. Companies that find themselves in this position should speak to their consultants, to see if they can broker a common sense agreement over systems and paperwork.

As one practitioner remarks, if something works, “why reinvent the wheel?”

Example: if you engage a roofing contractor, he surely knows more about roofing risks than you. Why then would you seek to impose new documentation on a firm that is doing work you cannot do yourself? And are you going to pay for the retraining of the roofers on your new imposed system? Finally, will you pay for the court fines if one of the workers is injured because they are now working under ‘your’ rules?

hese are all important questions that are being raised under the HSE’s own auspices. Will it act to investigate? We expect to be reporting on this subject again in the future.