Slightly More Radical Rethinking Construction

As suggested in the HSE Discussion Document Revitalising Health and Safety in Construction. "To make a real difference in health and safety, we must identify and tackle all relevant factors. We need to think widely and not restrict our ideas to those traditionally perceived as health and safety issues." (DD para. 12)

Over recent years, a great number of initiatives have focused in general on improving the industry and in particular its appalling health and safety record with very mixed results. Are we not missing an opportunity to really rethink construction? If, as claimed in Accelerating Change, the construction industry is 'vital' to almost every aspect of living in the UK, should it be such a simple matter at certain levels to set up in business in the industry? As much of the industry has clearly demonstrated its willingness to improve should there not be a quid pro quo for doing so? Consider the following:

The scale and diversity of the industry is immense. About 200,000 firms are involved in a multiplicity of activities ranging from multi-national companies to the very small. About 85% of these businesses employ fewer than 5 workers. Over 1.9 million people work in the industry from manual labourers to professionals. The industry is responsible for about 10% of the GDP valued in 1998 at about £58billions. The 'informal economy' is estimated at £4.5 billions. An independent report commissioned by UCATT suggests that the number of false self-employed in the industry is between 300 - 400,000. The costs of accidents have been estimated at £8 billions and of ill health £18 billions. Whatever the accuracy of the figures huge sums are involved and as stated in Rethinking Construction the industry "is simply too important to be allowed to stagnate".

A career in the construction industry is not seen as one that will be fulfilling or rewarding. This in part perhaps explains the shortfall estimated by the CITB of 300-350,000 trained workers in the industry even although Accelerating Change identifies the importance of attracting and retaining an all qualified workforce at all levels.

The majority of projects are undertaken for clients who do not understand and are not interested in construction. Quite rightly, they wish to concentrate on their own business. As a customer, the expectations should be that the product will meet - if not exceed - the need (on time, cost and quality). As the supplier, surely the industry has to focus on meeting that expectation. The industry therefore needs to become responsible for its own leadership and delivery of its "product" which the good business practices advocated in Rethinking Construction will help it to achieve. Clients certainly should be encouraged to commit to the project but this commitment should not be essential for the project to be completed successfully or satisfactorily nor to drive improvement in the industry.

In those terms therefore, what changes do we need to make? What are the best ways of achieving those changes?

Surely the starting point as stated in Accelerating Change is that all in the industry should be qualified and competent. Registration schemes such as CORGI and others such as the licensing scheme being developed for demolition contractors point the way forward. Schemes for registration, certification, licensing have been mooted in various formats at various times before but with a few exceptions e.g. CORGI, such schemes are flawed in that there is nothing to require the customer or the supplier to be party to such schemes. The other principal flaw of such schemes is that the cost usually falls on the registrant who gains little other than the possibility of being invited to bid for work. In reality even the most willing participant faces being undermined by clients primarily interested in lowest price despite all the advice and initiatives to support " best value " and/or by those in the "informal economy". At the moment therefore such schemes do not provide either the necessary level playing field for competition or the sound basis on which the registrants can invest in implementing good business practices as advocated in the many initiatives.

If the real primary driver is to focus on and to find the means to recruit and retain good quality staff in all disciplines and who are appropriately qualified and competent at all levels then why not require all those who practise, work and offer a service within the construction industry to be licensed but critically that in return, any construction work is undertaken only by those appropriately licensed/registered practitioners.

The detailed operation of such schemes undoubtedly would require careful consideration but "models" already operate in the USA and within several EC countries. Broadly, licensees could be registered with the appropriate professional and/or trade organisation with perhaps different levels of licence being granted to reflect experience and competence. In this way the licence would clearly identify the type of work or projects that may be undertaken and would allow for periodic review. The government already appears to be considering such a licence scheme for doctors with a five-year review period. Such a scheme could well be applicable to other professions.

Practitioners would be able to invest, undertake R and D and develop best business practices in the knowledge that they are competing against similarly "qualified" practitioners. The industry would be able to offer rewarding and fulfilling long-term careers whilst dealing a severe blow to rogue traders and "white van man". In the longer term and in conjunction with the insurance industry consideration perhaps could be given to the possibility of household insurance being invalidated if construction work is undertaken by non-licensed practitioners.

Critically for clients, advice would be more robust, competition would be maintained and costs even reduced because the industry would have a sound basis on which to invest and implement good business practice. Indeed the culture of risk management inherent in the positive practice of CDM could be of immense value as an over-arching concept/strategy applicable to all aspects of construction projects. Risk management offers a common language with which to engage all parties to a project from its very earliest stages through to completion but particularly clients many of whom are fully familiar with managing risk in relation their core business. In this way, health and safety can be considered as an integral part of all project matters not only by the construction "professionals" but importantly also by the client.

Health and safety could be incorporated with each licensee appropriate to the level of working but very much as an integral part of generally improving business.

Undoubtedly such a mandatory scheme would have cost implications but probably, with much of the administration being undertaken by existing institutions and representative organisations, would cost a great deal less than the cost of accidents, ill-health and the informal economy to GB plc.

By offering a means of reaching all who work in the construction industry or certainly the vast majority it is quite possible that such a scheme could become largely self financing in terms of GB plc. With the number of accidents and those suffering ill-health likely to reduce and a consequent reduction in costs in insurance and to the Health service, the costs to GB plc are also likely to reduce. In turn this reduction could be further improved by the increased numbers involved in training which would act as a further positive contribution to the economy. Such a scheme would also deal a telling blow to the 'informal economy' and assist in regulating the large numbers of false self-employed in the industry.

From this mandatory scheme the industry would be well placed to meet its fundamental role in the successful delivery of the government's planned investment of the modernisation of Britain as well as provide a sound basis for good design and good construction deemed by Accelerating Change to be "vital to the quality of our life: in our homes, offices, shops and factories. They are vital to the quality of our urban environment, to the regeneration of urban communities, to the provision of schools, hospitals and infrastructure, to the quality of other public buildings and spaces; and they are vital to sustainable development."

Brian B. Law

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