Don’t let Grenfell obscure construction’s smaller tragedies

4 June 2018 | By Chris Blythe

While it’s important to maintain a focus on learning from the lessons of the Grenfell Tower disaster, we mustn’t forget the construction-related deaths that don’t hit the headlines, argues Chris Blythe.

Chris Blythe

While the current focus is rightly on the outcome of the Hackitt Review of building regulations and fire safety following Grenfell and will be so throughout the year, we cannot forget the impacts of the industry elsewhere.

I recently attended a conference on construction logistics and the contrast between deaths happening within construction hoardings and those construction-related deaths outside was a shock.

Last year around 30 construction workers died within the hoardings, with 120 people killed on the roads by construction-related vehicles.

Looking more widely it set me thinking about the consequences of when other things go wrong. Nothing brings it into sharper focus than the collapse of Carillion. Much has been said about the impact on Carillion’s supply chain and there have been notable number of subcontractor failures.

What do not hit the headlines are the lost opportunities. In the case of Carillion we have two major hospital constructions stalled, the Royal in Liverpool and the Midland Metropolitan in Sandwell.

It is estimated that the latter will take at least another two years before completion and that depends on how much deterioration takes place before work restarts.

The Royal in Liverpool, due to be opened later this year, will miss that target and will be lucky to be ready by the end of 2019. It is hard to estimate how many people might lose their chance of treatment because of the delays.

With an incident like Grenfell, we have a national disaster and a huge amount of resources and media attention go into making certain it does not happen again. But the others, happening each and every day, are individual tragedies. We build to make people’s lives better; we fail when we don’t, so what can we do to improve?

We all agree our business model does not work. The level of subcontracting that goes on means control is difficult and the scope for making a fair return is lost in non-value adding activity. With due respect to the excellent work being done by our migrant workforce, they have been the substitute for investing in training and skills. But it is not sustainable.

How we improve the quality, sustainability and the professionalism of our industry is a challenge and requires a step-change in employment practices. Brexit does present an opportunity to take greater responsibility for ensuring that the industry has a well-trained and sustainable pipeline of employees that meet the future skills needs.

Innovations in digital and offsite manufacturing will have huge implications for how we will work in the future and securing that employment with the right legislative framework is essential. 

Getting people to own their work and own the responsibilities that their work entails might make a Grenfell less likely. It could also see people thinking through the risks they create through the logistics challenges and also deliver major works on time.

National disaster or local tragedy – to those affected, the result is still the same.

Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB


I agree with the points raised, and would like to add, consultants are just as bad when it comes to problems of taking responsibility.

John, 17 June 2018

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