Safety Behaviour in the Construction Industry

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Health and Safety Authority

Summary Statement

A multifaceted study of occupational safety culture and habits in the Irish construction industry.


There are a total of five construction inspectors in Northern Ireland working with the Health and Safety Executive. The structure of this construction group is comprised of four full-time inspectors reporting to one principal construction inspector. All inspectors had an engineering background; one electrical, two civil and one building management. The HSE recruits employees from all sectors. The interviewees reported working as construction inspectors over a period of five years to 5 months. The inspectors had much experience working in the area, from 10-15 years in the field of inspection. All inspectors were trained to a high degree.

Inspectors had successfully completed postgraduate diploma in safety management. The HSE also offered regular training courses for inspectors including legislation, COSSH, machinery guarding. New inspectors shadowed more experienced inspectors for a short period of time, which allowed for on the job training. There was a reported high level of cooperation amongst inspectors. On occasion two inspectors conducted inspections together. Construction inspectors have their own geographical area to cover.

Over one thousand inspections are conducted annually in Northern Ireland. The principal inspector conducts approximately 100 per year.

Site Selection

The HSE inspectors had a structured systematic approach to selection of sites for inspection. Inspectors reported that up to 80% of sites notified the authority of works in progress or proposed works. The authority receives approximately 500 notification per month. It was reported that two-thirds of these would be inspected. A database of all notifications is maintained. Notifications are classified into three categories:
  • Large construction works which require inspection,
  • Construction works which require communication with the architect,
  • Smaller construction works which will not be inspected e.g. small refurbishment's or roadworks
Complaints, accidents, and fatalities take priority over scheduled inspection. All complaints received by the authority area dealt with within ten days. Complaints may be dealt with over the phone but may also require a site visit.

Inspectors emphasized the importance of being cost effective when planning site inspections. Sites selected for inspection were done so according to size, operation and degree of risk associated with the work. Based on experience one inspector reported the bigger the site, the bigger the risk. However other inspectors disagreed and reported that smaller sites were more dangerous. All four inspectors agreed that the present method for site selection was a fair system and could be improved upon with more resources.

Site Inspection

Inspectors had a structured approach to site inspection. Inspectors reported they commenced their inspection on approaching the site, taking heed of any hazards visible from the road e.g. poor traffic management, poor housekeeping, dirty roadways. All four inspectors requested to speak with a member of the site management team on arrival, generally the contracts manager or site foreman.

It was reported there were very few safety officers and safety representative on site. Only one inspector reported a level of hostility on one previous site inspected. Three of the four inspectors inspected safety documentation prior to assessing site safety. One inspector stressed the importance of speaking with the site operatives asking for their opinions on safety matters relevant to the site. Inspectors always asked to be accompanied on their site inspection, generally by the site foreman. This gave the foreman an opportunity to make his/her own notes and verbally communicate with the inspector.

Safety on sites

Inspectors rated safety as low to medium on construction sites in Northern Ireland. Safety plans varied in both quality and quantity according the inspectors. Larger sites tended to have comprehensive safety plans with site-specific risk assessments. The inspectors attributed this to the fact that the safety plan was devised internally with plenty of available resources. Inspectors reported examination of subcontractors method statements, which were considered very poor. One inspector felt very strongly about the movement of subcontractors across the border where they have to comply with Northern Ireland legislation. Subcontractors were unfamiliar with the legislation requirements.

In general sites were not concerned with the method statements from subcontractors. One inspector indicated that the presence of a safety plan on site was a not a good indicator of safety performance. The inspector reported that much of the safety documentation was there to "cover management" and meet legislative requirements. Inspectors agreed involvement from subcontractors had to be increased to improve site safety.

All inspectors believed that site safety was better with a full-time safety officer on site. Main problems reported by inspectors on sites included poor scaffolding, poor welfare facilities, falls from height, poor housekeeping, lack of documentation, site security and machinery. One inspector reported that 70% of the safety plans were generic, not site specific with the use of water and electricity not addressed in the safety plan. The inspector recommended that all safety plans should be 8/9 pages in length. Many of the safety plans were not available on site as they were held in the company's head office. Inspectors viewed this as an indicator of how active the safety plan was on site.

All complaints were dealt with. Many of the complaints come from members of the public, which may be anonymous. Complaints regarding access to site by children, dirty roads and noise have been reported.

Following a site inspection, inspectors may issue prohibition notices (PN) or improvement notices (IN) where necessary. These notices are followed up with a letter of communication with accompanying relevant information. The inspectors also reported conducting site re-inspection one week after the PN had been served.

It was also reported that the level of management commitment to safety varied across sites. Larger sites were generally more proactive regarding safety management. All inspectors believed that management needed to take responsibility for safety and involve operatives and subcontractors. Inspectors reported that operatives believed "they had to get the job done quickly without complaint", believing they had to work under dangerous conditions.

All inspectors stressed the importance of safety training for both management and operative levels. Training on larger sites was reported better which was attributed to access to resources e.g. mobile training unit. Some smaller sites had no safety training. All inspectors welcomed the Registered Skills Card scheme. To date up to 20% of operatives have been registered.

Inspectors attributed the main cause of site accidents to lack of resources on site, stupidity, apathy, a lack of safety ownership and management commitment to safety.

The Northern Ireland construction group has placed great emphasis on improving site safety through conducting particular campaigns. These campaigns have utilized local media to highlight the importance of secure and safe scaffolding. Inspectors noted an improvement in site scaffolding since the introduction of this campaign. Inspectors have recognized the importance of safety at the planning and intend to involve planners and architects in preventing safety problems at the early stages of design and construction.

Suggestions for improvement
  • Increased resources within HSE i.e. more inspectors
  • Increase the level and quality of training
  • Health and safety plan must be site specific
  • Need for a fundamental change in attitudes on construction sites
  • Company and site management need to take responsibility for safety
  • Engage other industries in safety campaigns
  • More communication and feedback to lower site level
Overall conclusions

Inspectors identified the areas for improvement and development in safety management i.e. involvement of planners at early stages. They were very positive regarding their future involvement in prevention of accidents and fatalities. Inspectors felt very strongly about the importance of safety training. There was a general consensus that larger sites were better as they had access to resources, more ownership of safety plans as they were developed internally.

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