Respect for people

With 1.13
million employees, the construction industry is working hard towards recruiting
and retaining the right people. A major report published last week aims to set
out a blueprint for changing the culture of staff relations in the trade. A
massive drive is under way to tackle the poor people management in the
construction industry, spearheaded by the Government, industry bosses and the
unions. It has been on the boil for two years, but reached its climax last week
in a joint report from the Movement for Innovation (M4I), A Commitment to
People: Our Biggest Asset, that sets out a blueprint for change. At its heart
is the belief that people are the industry’s biggest asset and unless the
industry improves the way it treats its 1.13 million employees, then all other
attempts at change will fail.

 

The construction
industry has an annual turnover of £60bn, of which £24bn is spent by central
and local government on everything from shipyards and offices to refurbishing
married quarters for Army personnel. But the way construction services are
bought is frighteningly inefficient. In 1994, Sir Michael Latham wrote a report
for the Government (Constructing the Team) which showed that greater
efficiencies could cut everyone’s construction bill by 30 per cent. The
findings were leapt on, particularly by clients, with alacrity. Imagine getting
30 per cent more buildings for the same money.

But it has
taken six years to identify specific ways of making it happen. This time round,
all the attention is on practical ways of improving the lot of the people who
deliver construction, with particular emphasis on site staff.

Nearly 100
years ago, Robert Tressell published The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, his
classic book on the miserable existence of house painters in Brighton. Since
then little has changed for the site worker. He, and it is usually a he, will
often be working in cold, dirty and dangerous conditions, not knowing where he
will be working next week or even whether he will have a job at all. He will
usually begin work early in the morning, about 7.30am, and will often be
required to work overtime and at weekends to meet tight deadlines.

It is still
not uncommon for sanitary arrangements on site to comprise a bucket in the
corner – recently one well-known contractor was successfully prosecuted for
having only one functioning toilet for 80 site workers, and that is at the
blue-chip end of the industry.

Sometimes
poorly educated, the site worker will be stressed by the pressures of his work
and will smoke. Few, if any, decent cleaning or catering facilities will be available,
hence the public perception of builders as slovenly and loutish. He will be
suspicious of any threats to his livelihood, so the chances of women or people
from ethnic minorities getting a welcome as new co-workers are less than zero.
In his position, it is understandable, though not acceptable, that he will take
the chance to leer and whistle at pretty girls as a welcome change from the
misery of the job.

The
wretchedness of the work outlined in that thumbnail sketch is echoed by the
statistics. Construction kills more people than most other industries. There
were 85 fatal accidents in the year 1999-2000, up 20 per cent on previous years
and at a time when accidents elsewhere were falling. In the same year, there
were 5,040 non-fatal major accidents and 10,292 injuries that lasted more than
three days. Combined, that means construction workers are five times more
likely to be killed and twice as likely to sustain a major industry as their
counterparts.

The figures
for occupational health that the report terms “slow accidents” also make grim
reading. About 500 construction workers die each year due to asbestos-related
diseases, four in 10 suffer from musculo-skeletal problems, and three in 10
from dermatitis. In all, they are twice as much at risk of ill health as their
counterparts.

So what?
This has been tolerated for decades. What is different this time is the
recognition that, given the choice, nobody wants to work in construction. With
near full employment, people are voting with their feet and that is having an
impact on companies’ bottom lines.

The number
of people applying for construction-related degrees is plummeting. Those who do
bite the bullet are quickly poached by other industries once they graduate.
There is also significant leakage of managers into other industries but little
traffic the other way.

Alan Crane,
the report’s co-author and chairman of the Movement for Innovation, outlines
the stark choice, “A lot of the skills in construction, such as analysis, are
easily transferable to other industries. We are losing almost half our
graduates to the City and to financial institutions. Our managers are experts
at risk and risk management and those skills are welcomed by other industries.

“At the
operative, or site worker end, the workforce is getting older. Ten years ago,
33 per cent of the workforce was under 30 years old, now it has fallen to 25
per cent.

“As a
result the industry is (increasingly) short of good people. Those construction
companies that cannot attract and retain them will not survive. The business
imperative will make companies change,” Crane says.

Crane is a
former site worker, having begun as a painter, who went on to win numerous
awards for managing the construction of the Canary Wharf complex in London. In
the past decade he has been chief executive of two construction companies and
can see the challenge from both sides of the fence.

His report
has been put together with the help of seven working groups that looked at
health, safety, site welfare, off-site conditions, lifelong learning, behaviour
and diversity. Under it, employers will be encouraged to put together a
framework that measures staff turnover and absence from work, safety, the
percentage of the workforce that is qualified, diversity and employee satisfaction.
Within those themes, they will be given checklists of specific measures for
each theme.

For site
facilities and the working environment at site level, employers will be
measuring the way in which people are inducted, briefed and equipped. Site access,
layout and transport will be vetted. Clients who visit sites will have access
to charts listing the kind of site facilities regarded as reasonable, such as
dry areas, toilets and washing areas. They will be able to cross-check on every
visit to ensure that the site is conforming to best practice. This will be a
valuable part of auditing performance.

Most of the
large clients in the industry will sign up to the report’s targets and make
them an integral part of the bidding process, so that contractors that do not
provide the services they are contractually obligated to will risk losing their
contract.

Designers
will be encouraged to design out hazardous materials and to design in lifting
equipment to cut the numbers of lifting accidents.

The
diversity theme is still under development and is likely to include
measurements such as proportions by race, gender and age. On the health side,
there will be several toolkits or checklists incorporating legal requirements.
They will include access to protective equipment such as gloves and barrier
creams, and exposure to materials that are hazardous to health. Noise and
vibration policies will also be outlined and policies for stress, alcohol and
drugs will be included.

Companies
will be encouraged to compile their own checklists on a regular basis so they
can see whether they are improving. Over the next year they will be given data
on industry norms compiled by M4I so they can check whether they are ahead of,
or behind, the rest of the pack.

To put
together industry data, M4I is asking the industry to offer demonstration
projects that will both test the contents of the checklists and give further
evidence on how they can be used effectively.

The Respect
for People report recognises that many of the standards they are urging on the
industry are already part of the Investors in People (IIP) approach.
Significantly, only 10 per cent of the construction workforce is covered by IIP
compared with an outside norm of 33 per cent. So the report is urging all firms
in construction to commit to the IIP standard “as the most effective and most
systematic means of developing and demonstrating respect for people”. But it
may prove hard to achieve. Construction firms already receive a £2,500 grant to
help them meet IIP standards.

One key
concern that receives special mention in the report is the level of aggravation
in construction and on sites. To quote the report, “in construction,
adversarial behaviour is the norm”. The working group that looked at the issue
sees this as the key cause of many of the industry’s ills and called for
research into its causes, effects and impact on performance.

But one of
the biggest challenges to changing construction is the fragmentation of an
industry made up of more than 255,000 companies. Will this report bring change
below the level of the largest contractors? Crane thinks it will have a
trickle-down effect. Its chances will be boosted by it being championed by all
the major clients in the industry so that contractors are forced to implement
it.

Crane’s
measure of success in the short term will be a reduction in accident rates
while improving staff retention levels. In the longer term, he wants the public

perception
of construction to become more favourable so that it attracts a higher calibre
of entrant.

But will
implementing this best practice add to contractors’ costs? No, says the
report’s co-author, Don Ward, chief executive of the Construction Industry
Board. “We don’t expect this to cost anything. We expect an awful lot of
saving.” By this time next year they will know if they are on the right track.

By Kathy
Watson

 

Safety

A study by
the Health and Safety Executive showed that on an £8m supermarket construction
scheme, 8.5 per cent of the tender price was lost due to accidents, equating to
an annualised  loss of £700,000.

The study
demonstrated that accidents caused by poor planning cost £41,680.

Poor
supervision caused accidents costing £26,384. Nearly £500 of losses were
incurred in six accidents when forklift trucks dropped their loads; luckily no
one was injured.

More than
£2,700 of damages and other losses resulted from 20 cases of vehicles and
cranes hitting or running over property.

A further
£214 was lost when a column fell over. It could have been much more serious as
it was close to a railway line.

There would
have been considerable indirect costs, either because people had to stand idle
as a result of the accidents, or because they were redirected to deal with the
consequences instead of getting on with the job.

 

Carl Bro

Prompted by
the work on Respect for People, engineering consultancy Carl Bro carried out a
study of the cost of sickness absence across its 450 staff.

In the
past, monitoring of absence was seen as alien and unwelcome, implying distrust
of employees. Managers resisted it, claiming, “each profit centre is like a
tightly run ship and our system of timesheets, which log project hours,
training, holidays and sickness, is enough to detect trends”.

Despite
this, it ran a retrospective exercise on 1999 absences. It showed that absences
that year cost £80,000, 0.75 per cent of turnover, regardless of the indirect
costs of disruption to the business.

The study
also highlighted patterns of absence that had not hitherto been identified. For
instance, absence levels among administrative staff were higher than among
technical staff. This raised questions about job satisfaction, motivation and
feelings of worth. Steps have been taken to improve the lot of the
administrative staff and productivity has risen.

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