We need to continue to be vigilant with health and safety on the worksite post COVID-19

CHASNZ GM of Health and Safety Innovation, Jon Harper-Slade says we must continue to be vigilant in adhering to health and safety on the worksite. We can't only focus on COVID-19. 

How are businesses juggling health and safety with COVID-19?  

Most of the businesses I see are doing their best with what they've got in all areas of safety. The COVID-19 response from the construction industry has undoubtedly stretched their capacity to deal with safety issues and forced them to change the way they work in this different world. 

How well has our sector responded from a health and safety POV?  

From what I've seen, businesses in the construction industry have responded well. I'm very impressed with the way the industry has collaborated around a cohesive set of standards and protocols that were developed to deal with the threat of COVID-19 transmission. People have been sensible and responsible, and we've seen a consistent response from the industry. However, a distraction like COVID-19 will alter the industry's capacity to focus on other things. We will likely suffer this type of disruption to our businesses again sometime in the future, so a pandemic response should be on every businesses risk register. Organisations must put time into determining what adaptive capacity they have to respond to these types of incidents. 

What should worksites focus on post-COVID-19?  

Many construction businesses have become limited in what they can focus on, and that may be affecting their ability to manage safety. 

Their first area of focus should be on mobile plant and vehicle operations, which account for 34% of deaths across the industry. We need to focus on how those operations are coordinated so that we prevent fatalities and serious injuries. It requires pedestrians to be appropriately segregated from plant operations and monitoring vehicle movements.  

The second thing I would like to see is a focus on how we keep people safe when working at heights. Accidents when working at heights above, and below ground, contribute to a third of the deaths on the worksite.  

The third thing is mental health. COVID-19 put a lot of pressure on our people. If organisations are having to restructure, they must go about it in the correct way. Also, it's essential to recognise specific roles are under added pressures from pre-COVID-19 deadlines, putting people in near-impossible positions. Our CEO, Chris Alderson wrote a great article on the topic 

What should management be doing to ensure safety on the worksite? 

Unnecessary accidents, including slips and trips, twisted ankles and cuts or broken fingers, are generally well-managed by traditional safety messages. 

The more difficult area of safety is how we prevent deaths and serious injuries, and that's where the focus needs to be. 

The fundamental principle is that the people who carry out the work create their own safety from the work that they do.  

Management should focus on understanding how people work. To develop an understanding of what is happening on the worksite, we need to build a culture of mutual trust. If management wants to learn about what happens on the worksite, they should focus on developing a strong relationship with their people. It'll help create an environment where workers can report issues without fear of retribution and punitive actions. Building a culture of trust allows workers to have confidence in speaking up about health and safety issues that may be concerning them. 

The second part of this discussion is learning. I encourage management to get up out of their desks and walk around the worksite. Ask staff questions like: 

  • What makes things difficult for you? 
  • What's the dumbest thing we ask you to do? 

Questions are everything, so the more questions you ask, the more knowledge you will gain about worksite practices. Sometimes I think worksite visits are more like the Queen's royal visit. Management asks the same set of questions as they did during their last site visit. They receive replies that are very similar to the last time they visited; then it's back to the office for a cup of coffee.   

What's a good question to start with when you visit a worksite? 

I think one of the best safety questions to ask a worker is "tell me about a good day at work for you." The worker is then likely to tell you what was absent on that day and had caused problems while completing their tasks. The answer may be along the lines of the correct tools weren't available to complete the job, the right material wasn't available, the boss isn't treating workers with respect, or they weren't given enough time to complete the job. Once these issues have been identified, they can be easily fixed. By asking that one simple question, you can create an environment of trust and where workers see that management responds to issues in a positive way, not a punitive way. Learning about the way we work helps answer the question "how do we prevent deaths on the worksite."