If you are of a similar age to me, I bet the first thing that came into your head on reading that title was Boy George and all those great Culture Club songs. Actually, I didn’t really like them at the time – I was more into heavier stuff, but it’s funny how you like the songs that were big in your teenage years when you hear them again in later life. Something to do with reminiscing, I suppose. So, what’s this got to do with construction health and safety? Erm. . .ah yes, culture.
There’s a new (relatively speaking, of course) culture club now, which has been formed by some of the largest construction companies in the UK. As far as I know, this new culture club isn’t fronted by anyone quite as flamboyant as Boy George, and it’s not really a club – that’s just what I’m calling it. What it really is, is a number of companies that are all tackling the thorny issue of the culture that exists in the construction industry, and the effect it has on health and safety on site. Several of the companies I’m referring to are members of the UK Construction Group (UKCG), so maybe there is a ‘club’ of sorts.
This notion of culture (or, to be more precise, health and safety culture) is covered in Element 3 of Unit 1 of the NEBOSH Construction Certificate, and it is relevant to all industries, none more so than construction. You see, the culture that exists has a huge effect on behaviour, and unsafe or at-risk behaviour is an extremely common element of the causal chain of accidents and ill health. The theory is that if the culture can be changed and, therefore behaviours, then many of the accidents and incidences of ill health that occur in the construction industry could be avoided.
So what is culture? That’s an interesting question. We talk about culture all the time, especially in relation to different countries, or parts of the world. We see culture, or cultures, when we visit different countries, but what actually is it? My dictionary – and it’s one of those big fat ones – defines culture as ‘the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge which constitute the shared bases of social action’. Ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge are all in the mind, and, as far as I know, we can’t yet see into people’s minds. Instead, what we see are the ‘social actions’ that are informed by ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge. In other words, the behaviours.
So, to change behaviour on site we need to change the ideas, beliefs, etc. of those in the industry, and that’s not going to be easy. However, there is a way and the irony is that it is through behaviour! We tackle the at-risk behaviour such that it is eliminated as an option in people’s minds. This gradually (and I mean gradually) leads to a change in beliefs, etc. and, therefore, to a change in culture. When that happens the at-risk behaviours are eliminated because they are no longer acceptable, or part of ‘the way we do things round here’. People will do the safe thing because they want to, not because they are told to, and they will do the safe thing all the time, even when no one is looking.
It is precisely this which the construction industry, or at least some of it, is trying to do – changing behaviours by doing two things: firstly, by observing unsafe behaviour and intervening in a positive way, designed to get the individual to think more about the negative consequences of their actions (i.e. what if?); and secondly, and perhaps just as importantly, by praising the safe behaviour when it is observed. This approach can play a significant part in changing the at-risk behaviour and, ultimately, the culture of the industry.
A quick look at the statistics on the HSE website shows that, on average over the last five years, there were 53 fatal accidents in the construction industry, and something in the region of 3700 occupational cancers a year. That’s a lot of suffering, and it is only part of the story. Some estimates put some element of risk-taking behaviour in the causal chain of 90 per cent of the accidents and ill health that occur in construction. We might not be able to reduce those statistics by 90 per cent but we can certainly go a long way.
If there are any stalwarts out there who think it cannot be done, just think back 30 or so years, and remember the general attitudes and behaviours associated with wearing seat-belts in cars, and drink-driving. Very different to how they are now. It takes time, but it can be done so, if you get the chance, don’t hesitate to join the new culture club. It is how we’ll make the next big change to the lives of those who work in the construction industry.
And if I haven’t convinced you then at least I’ve probably succeeded in getting you humming Karma Chameleon, and it’s going to stick in your head all day now, as it has been in mine!
Rodger Hope CMIOSH, IIRSM
Rodger has been involved in health and safety for over 15 years and has been particularly involved in construction health and safety for over 10 years. He really enjoys tutoring because of the opportunity it provides to influence peoples’ attitude towards health and safety. In his spare time Rodger enjoys sailing and boat maintenance.