Interview: Speaking up for regulation
Throughout his career Lawrence Waterman has never been shy of speaking out on health and safety policy issues. Now, as incoming chair of the British Safety Council, he is keeping up the battle. Denise Chevin reports.
Over the years Lawrence Waterman has become the go-to consultant for raising the bar on health and safety on large complex projects. The founding member of the Park Health and Safety Partnership has the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow Terminal 5 on his CV.
He ensured that construction of the Olympic Park and Village was the healthiest and safest project in Europe, an achievement for which he was awarded an OBE. He had a three-year spell as head of health and safety for the £6bn Battersea Power Station Development and is a consultant to the Thames Tideway Tunnel.
Most recently, the Chinese developer ABP has appointed him as head of health and safety on its £1.7bn redevelopment of the Albert Docks in east London. Equally impressive, LTC Cascade JV, the technical partner on the Lower Thames Crossing, has engaged Waterman to help it fulfil an ambition to ensure that the tunnel link between Essex and Kent brings about transformational change in the sector.
“It’s early days, but the big difference in terms of the strategy we’re drawing up is to make the health and safety programme more open to the outside world and invite suggestions on how to improve it,” he says.
“If you keep telling people health and safety regulation is an unnecessary burden, you’re almost sanctioning people to cut corners.”
Apart from an impressive portfolio and a constant drive for improvement and innovation, what marks Waterman out is his willingness to put his head above the parapet and speak out. “I’m known for my forthright views,” he says. He is already in campaign mode as incoming chair – from November – of the British Safety Council, a pan-industry membership grouping of health and safety advocates.
Waterman has rallied a plethora of industry health and safety bodies to lobby government to rethink its deregulation agenda, which originally emerged when David Cameron became prime minister in 2010. Many of these signatories to an open letter to government organised by Waterman had already reached the conclusion that the “one in, two out” approach to regulation was having a detrimental effect.
The Grenfell disaster only added to the urgency to get the government to change tack.
“If you keep on telling people that health and safety regulation is an unnecessary burden, rather than necessary for public safety, you’re almost sanctioning people to cut corners,” he says.
“There’s become a prevailing attitude of ‘elf ’n’ safety’ being a nuisance, of getting in the way of what we do, yet it’s decent standards that ensure we don’t get poisoned by food when we go out to a restaurant or drive cars with faulty brakes. Years of denigrating health and safety has taken its toll and encouraged non-compliance.”
One might argue that the focus of health and safety as far as construction is concerned has followed an opposite trajectory – and he agrees that the sector is becoming hard to beat in terms of accident safety reduction on site – but Waterman says that the industry has still felt its effect.
He points to the race to the bottom in terms of fees for building control functions that has impacted on the number of inspections. The role of building inspectors is likely to come under the spotlight in the Grenfell Inquiry.
While it is too early to speculate how the industry will have to change in a post-Grenfell world, one area that Waterman says must improve is the Building Regulations.
He’s firmly of the opinion that the regulations and accompanying guidance should have been updated as recommended by the coroner following the fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009 in which six people died.
“The big challenge is taking improvements in technology and management and drilling down to small sites – which has been a challenge for a long time.”
The coroner said Approved Document B was “a most difficult document to use”. “If the coroner says it’s not clear enough, it is not appropriate for the minister to dismiss it,” Waterman says of the subsequent failure to address it. Following the Grenfell tragedy, the government has announced an urgent review of regulations, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt. An interim report is expected in late autumn.
“I do feel the mood music in government is changing,” Waterman says, referring to noises coming from Whitehall of using the transitioning of European law into English law in the wake of Brexit to improve regulation. “That’s the sort of language it’s good to hear, getting away from this notion of regulation being a burden on business.”
A recent development he’s not so keen on is using health and safety breaches to swell the treasury’s coffers. Fines in construction have almost doubled in a year as sums for offences have gone up. “I don’t have a problem about the level of fines, but I think the money levied could be used more constructively. As fines have gone up I think we should be looking for creative and imaginative approaches.”
Waterman cites the £5m fine handed out in September 2016 to Merlin Entertainments following the accident on its Smiler ride at Alton Towers where a young woman ended up losing a leg.
“I would have liked to have seen that money going into training centre for permanent and seasonal workers in the entertainment industry. That would provide a fitting memorial to those affected and provide a starting point for improvement to help ensure that it couldn’t happen again,” he says.
The HSE’s fees for intervention, where those contravening rules pay for the inspector’s time, also comes in for criticism. Waterman’s concern is that it creates an unhelpful barrier among health and safety professionals. “I’m not saying the fees are wrong if the money is used to fund improved activity. But when used as substitute funding then I’m not so comfortable.”
In particular, he’d like to see still more focus on smaller sites. “The big challenge is taking improvements in technology and management and drilling down to small sites – which has been a challenge for a long time.”
He’s also championing a focus on wellbeing. In his long career Waterman has always emphasised the health in H&S and was a founder of the Construction Leadership Group, which has launched an initiative to improve mental wellbeing.
“Mates in Mind is incredibly important. The culture of the industry is still, to a certain degree, one of bravado and machismo. If someone is upset and depressed it’s got to become easier to talk about it,” he says.