Time for leaders at all levels to step up

01 Nov 2018

Leadership across all levels of the supply chain is required if we are to succeed in building a better, and safer, construction industry - By Site Safe CE, Brett Murray

Over my 15 years of being involved in health and safety, I’ve witnessed some gradual, but significant, improvements in health and safety within the construction sector. The Health and Safety at Work Act, introduced in 2015, has gone a long way to raise accountability around some of the key issues by a greater focus on worker health and toughening up on upstream duties such as design, importation, supply and commissioning of plant and structures. 

However, despite considerable investment in initiatives such as reducing falls from height, the Canterbury charter, and a declining trend in injury and fatality rates, health and safety remains a significant challenge for the industry. Construction remains in the top five industries contributing to death and serious harm in New Zealand, and with nine fatalities and almost 600 notifiable injuries or incidents last year, there’s no doubt more must be done. Even more tragically, the sector has the highest rate of suicide of any sector in the country, currently sitting at six times the fatality rate.

Compliance Versus Care

There is a saying that out of tragedy comes opportunity, and in New Zealand’s case, the tragedy of Pike River was the catalyst needed to push health and safety legislative reform to the forefront of the government’s agenda.

But while tougher legislation may work to briefly energise those businesses who put the safety of their people down the pecking order of priorities, legislation alone has limited impact on creating positive change.

I would like to think that no employer ever wants to be on the receiving end of a phone call telling them one of their workers has been seriously injured or killed. Most employers care about the safety of their staff. But the question is, how do we translate that care into a positive workplace culture where health and safety simply becomes part of how we operate? For this shift to happen, all parts of the supply chain – from client through to contractor – need to walk the talk. All too often, health and safety is seen as a compliance issue, when it should be seen as a way to take care of our people.

We need to move beyond debates about the costs of compliance to a dialogue where ensuring people’s health and safety becomes part of a bigger positive change towards long-term wellbeing. Our current generation of construction workers can expect to live for over 20 years post-retirement. Their quality of life is impacted significantly by how well their exposure to harm and challenges to mental wellbeing have been managed in their working years. Leaders need to be clear about communicating positive safety values and always working towards a culture where taking care of people is seen as positive and productive. Any process which values the bottom line over the lives of workers should be called into question.

Industry Leadership

The excellent article ‘An Industry in Crisis’ by Iain MacIntyre (NZCN Feb/Mar’18) really highlights some of the very real and substantive challenges that the industry is facing in New Zealand right now. In essence, the article paints a dire picture of systemic failure of leadership across multiple critical areas.

When you put a safety lens over some of the key issues highlighted in the article – poor business management practices resulting in major cashflow issues, an industry prone to taking shortcuts on quality and safety, and government departments setting a poor example by driving cheapest price tenders, coupled with widespread disregard of their own procurement guidelines – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise the negative impact this could have on safe work practices.

We recognise that there are challenges: the boom-bust cycle of construction, coupled with the high number of small to medium-sized enterprises, means that many smaller companies struggle to invest in health and safety and to cope with the required paperwork. These businesses are also the ones who suffer most financially when major players go bust.

The industry is furthered hampered by the current skills shortage, with some 56,000 extra workers needed over the next three years.

Leaders at all levels, from government through to supervisors onsite, need to step up and take responsibility for making the safety and wellbeing of their workers their top priority. That’s why it’s so important that initiatives like the Vertical Industry Leaders Group, led by Naylor Love’s Rick Herd, and the newly-formed Construction Health and Safety NZ (CHASNZ) actively confront the issues and work with government, businesses and industry organisations such as Site Safe to address them.

Government Leading The Way

While there’s undoubtedly much work to be done at industry level, the government must exhibit leadership that goes beyond mere rhetoric. While more emphasis has been put on health and safety in tender documents since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act, decision-making remains largely focused on price and timing. The impact of this is the supply chain is forced to either reduce its margins or reduce costs, which often results in less investment in health and safety during the job.

We believe that as a major client, the government must be more proactive when it comes to demanding excellent health and safety standards. As a client, the government can encourage better health and safety outcomes through its purchasing clout, both in its housing policy and in its own building and infrastructure projects. The government is in a unique position to drive high standards through the supply chain by working alongside industry to set specific standards during the procurement process. Procurement and tender documents with straightforward and consistent requirements will help to lift standards across the sector and create a clear benchmark for the industry.

The government has a real opportunity to be a leader by requiring all government construction contracts to have a consistent level of health and safety practice, as well as a minimum reporting standard. If larger constructors must meet the standards set by the government, there will in turn be significant flow-on benefits across the sector.

There are a couple of promising signals in this area. The Government CEOs Health and Safety Group has gained real traction and contains many of the leaders of departments who are major procurers of construction work. This group is the ideal vehicle through which to generate positive leadership in this area. Secondly, while production of joint health and safety initiatives for the sector between WorkSafe NZ and ACC has been painfully slow, funding has finally been released by ACC and should allow WorkSafe to deliver on its role as the government’s system leader.

Clients Making Safety a Priority in the Design Phase

Building designers must now consider health and safety during the design phase and for the whole lifecycle of the building. Good safe design which considers all users – from builders and occupiers, to those eventually demolishing the building – is one of the most effective ways of eliminating health and safety risks. This requires a major culture change.

Major construction clients, including the government, should lead by example in this area. This could be achieved by ensuring all contracts clearly specify the need for whole-of-life health and safety requirements in design documents.

And what about Site Safe’s role? As an industry body and the sector’s primary training provider, Site Safe delivers high-quality training for over 75,000 workers every year on behalf of its 5000 members, as well as carrying out a range of auditing services and consultancy work. We are well placed to recognise shifts in trends and leadership attitudes towards training and practical site safety.