When actions speak louder than words

9 November 2011

Your attitude and the way you communicate on site will have more influence on health and safety outcomes than a rule book written in the office, argues Glen Robertson

On larger construction sites, diverse groups of people work alongside one another, focusing on getting their part of the job done. The principal contractor is responsible for identifying and enforcing a standard set of behaviours and values across the site to maintain safety. How successful it is depends on the quality of its safety leadership.

Behavioural safety programmes and safety management systems may look great on paper, but a company’s commitment to safety is revealed in
the attitude taken by those working on site. Those in positions of authority have the most influence. They operate as role models, showing through their own actions the standard of behaviour the principal contractor expects. 

The culture on construction sites tends to be macho and sometimes confrontational. Where this is the case, attitudes towards health and safety are usually negative: it is seen as a “rule-obsessed” process that slows the job down and if workers raise issues they may get a hostile reaction from colleagues or managers.

Such attitudes can be challenged by those in leadership positions delivering positive, consistent messages about the organisation’s commitment to safety. However, there is often a gap between what leaders/senior managers say about their commitment to health and safety and what they actually do in practice.

For example, a director may carry out a site visit armed with a list of things that are holding up the job, demanding action from the site manager and giving the impression that safety can be compromised to get the job done quickly. If workers are worried about being blamed for delaying the job, then high potential incidents will be under-reported.

The hierarchy on site creates barriers to communication that need to be broken down. Greater transparency will happen if senior managers and leaders are willing to ask questions and listen to what site managers and front-line operatives have to say.

David MacDonald, civil engineering director at Global Construction, recognises this. “We need to show our workforce that when they speak up they’ll be taken seriously,” he says.

When MacDonald and his leadership colleagues at Global Construction increased the involvement of workers in discussions about health and safety, they discovered that workers wanted to be involved more. “We discovered that although we tell people what they should and shouldn’t do, we don’t explain why that’s the case. They told us that if they understood why a rule was in place, then they would be more likely to comply with it. So that is one of the priorities that we’re going to take forward — better explanation,” says MacDonald. “As far as workers’ involvement is concerned, they said that they wanted to be involved in writing site risk assessments and method statements, so that is also something that we’ll start to do.”

Safety leadership can be improved by following these five simple steps:



When presenting your views to others there can be mismatch between what you intend to communicate and what others actually experience. You not only communicate your message with words but also with the tone of your voice, the way you sit or stand, the way you move your hands, your facial expressions. With more awareness, you can make sure that you communicate what you want to.

Drama methods are effective in helping leaders to develop their people skills. For example, by dramatising a typical site visit (using actors, for example) , you can explore the impact of particular attitudes and behaviours on the quality of the visit and identify improvements.

You can encourage discussion about safety across different parts of the organisation by using dramatised stories based on real incidents. Such stories show everyone — from frontline operatives to senior managers and directors — the relevance of an effective safety culture, allowing a level of engagement which helps to identify solutions and generate commitment to action.

When operating in a rigid hierarchical system where the norm is to tell people what to do, it can be difficult to ask questions and listen more. But this is what leaders need to do to break down barriers and create more trust. Leaders need to understand how their behaviour impacts on a safety culture and find out what they need to do differently.

Glen Robertson is director of Forum Interactive, a learning and development consultancy specialising in behavioural safety and safety leadership.


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Back to basics: Funding claims and arbitration

If you are owed money, conditional fee agreements (CFAs) can be a very attractive way of funding a claim through litigation or arbitration. CFAs can range in nature from a relatively small reduction in fees during the course of a case, to the extreme of a “no win no fee” CFA, with both involving an uplift in fees in the event of success.

In a no win no fee CFA, if the claim does not succeed no fees are payable to the solicitor. The uplift to fees on success is there to balance the risk for the solicitor for those cases which are not successful.

In addition, “after the event” (ATE) insurance is available. This will normally cover the losing side’s exposure to the winning party’s legal costs, and will sometimes even cover the losing party’s own legal costs. Combined with a CFA this can make pursuing a claim very attractive. ATE insurance premiums are not cheap, though, and premiums of thousands of pounds are the norm.

However, reforms have been proposed which, if implemented, will mean CFA success fees will no longer be recoverable from an opponent and ATE insurance premiums will not be recoverable in construction disputes. To balance these changes, contingency fee agreements have been proposed. These would allow recovery of fees out of any damages awarded, albeit subject to a maximum percentage of recovery. The proposals are currently going through Parliament and a final decision is unlikely to be reached before 2012.

This gives a relatively short window of opportunity, a “last chance”, for those potential claimants who wish to take advantage of the CFA/ATE regime to allow them to pursue their claims with the benefits and costs protection such arrangements afford.

By Stuart Thwaites, associate in the construction law team at Midland law firm Wright Hassall. Tel: 01926 884690; email:

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