Is something missing from the Construction Strategy?

2 Jun

Yesterday saw the publication by the Cabinet Office of the government’s Construction Strategy (1). This is potentially a very important development for health and safety in the construction sector, not least because the public sector procures between 30 and 40% of the UK’s total construction output.

The new strategy sets out to reform the way in which public projects are procured, promising a “profound change in the relationship between public authorities and the construction industry.” However, ensuring that workers on public construction projects are protected against injury and death is not an aspect of this relationship that the strategy seeks to address and reform. Instead, the primary aim is to “ensure that the government consistently gets a good deal” and to make sure “that cost becomes a lead driver in the delivery of projects.”

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ensuring that the taxpayer receives value for money, but the absence of health and safety concerns from the construction strategy is worrying. The emphasis is on construction contractors and government working together to eliminate waste, but at no stage is protecting against wasted lives mentioned as a key element of the procurement process.

This is problematic, as recent studies have found that public procurement can drive improvements in health and safety standards. A report produced for HSE in 2007 (2) found that “the requirement to manage health and safety risks scored relatively low when selecting the procurement method”, little feedback was being passed to contractors who weren’t selected as successful bidders, and the collection of health and safety information by public bodies during construction processes was rare. The review of health and safety practices after completion was found to be low, and few public clients completed “client risk registers” to inform contractors about dangers and the ways in which they could be mitigated.

A follow-up report for HSE appeared in 2011 (3) and found that four years later, little had improved in public sector procurement. Only 35% of projects required that contractors be accredited to a Considerate Contractors Scheme, and only 41% required workers on site to be registered with a Construction Skills Certification Scheme.

This led the report’s authors to conclude that “In the intervening years between the initial survey and the current research there appears to have been little significant improvement in terms of public sector client’s discharging their health and safety obligations during the procurement of construction projects.”

This was backed up by the Donaghy Report, published in 2009 (4), which found that lower down the public procurement chain, accountability for health and safety was “patchy” and that government guidelines were “too often ignored” particularly at a local level.

Donaghy recommended several innovations in public sector procurement such as the collection of performance data, mandatory registration of contractors and their employees with accreditation schemes, as well as bringing in contractors early in the procurement process to ensure that designs for public buildings included clear health and safety guidelines.

The new Construction Strategy does not mention any of these recommendations in relation to health and safety, raising concerns that safety standards will be eroded in the search for “value.”

However, there are some grounds for optimism. Reports into public sector procurement have often mentioned the need to go beyond “traditional” methods of procurement and look into “collaborative” ways of delivering construction projects. Instead of companies competing to offer lower costs, it might be better if companies and public sector bodies could work together from an early stage to build safe, good value bids, and work from there.

The Construction Strategy promises to replace “adversarial cultures with collaborative ones” and to achieve “Integration of the design and construction of an asset with the operation phases.” So there is scope for good health and safety practices to be embedded early in the procurement process and carried through by “integrated management” teams across the whole life cycle of projects.

Moreover, the creation of a government Construction Board to monitor all government expenditure on construction could be extended to monitoring health and safety standards. Indeed, the GCB will be tasked with drawing up government Construction Standards, which should refer to health and safety.

Yet despite this, the emphasis within the Construction Strategy is upon the need to drive down costs, not to raise safety standards. It hopes that “clients should be aware, when they go into the market for construction work, what its price should be” but there is no indication yet that the monetary cost of protecting employee’s lives will be factored in.

1. www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/government-construction-strategy

2. www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr556.pdf

3. www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr848.pdf

4. www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/one-death-is-too-many.pdf

Written by Sam Urquhart. Sam is currently interim campaigns and engagement manager at the British Safety Council.

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