Opinion

Unsafe working is not tolerated, so why are emissions?

6 April 2018 | By Gary Sullivan

Construction consolidation centres could cut truck journeys to city sites by half

Poor air quality generated by construction projects causes death and illness – in the same way as unsafe working. It’s time the industry followed the zero tolerance approach to pollution that it has adopted for unsafe work practices, says Gary Sullivan.

Gary Sullivan

Attempts to legislate for clean air are not new. We had Smoke Abatement Acts in 1853 and 1856, then the Public Health (London) Act 1891 and more recently the City of London (Various Powers) Act of 1954, which influenced the Clean Air Act of 1968.

Now it would be unfair to say these and more recent acts haven’t worked, as the air quality in London is clearly better than it was in the 19th century. But it is still poor. And recent attempts by politicians to address that are having limited impact.

Recently, London has introduced a congestion charge which is little more than a revenue-generation scheme and, while the latest European emissions standard for commercial vehicles – Level 6 – is a positive step in reducing particulates, it makes no significant reduction in CO2 emissions.

Moreover, as is the case with electric vehicles, additional equipment fitted to engines increases weight and reduces payload. So, although we keep updating our fleets, it doesn’t do much to help those breathing in the fumes of city-centre traffic, and it all adds to the cost of goods.

Significant change usually comes from an epiphany. We now put our seat belts on as first nature and we don’t use asbestos any more. The big moment for construction was when we realised that setting targets to reduce fatalities implied that the industry thought some deaths were acceptable.

That one issue was at the heart of our safety improvement and the genesis for phrases like “zero tolerance” and “incident and injury-free”.

“If it is unacceptable to have unsafe working practices, why do we still plan our construction projects with the knowledge that we will cause emissions, which will lead to illness and in some cases early death?”

If it is unacceptable to have unsafe working practices – meaning that we plan all work to prevent injury or death – why do we still plan our construction projects with the knowledge that we will cause emissions, which will lead to illness and in some cases early death? Maybe the time has come to ban commercial vehicles and private cars from the most congested areas.

Now you might expect me to say that, as an advocate of construction consolidation centres. But when they offer the industry an opportunity to reduce truck journeys to city centre sites by over 50%, why would construction firms not take it?

Surely this offers a better solution, given that it measurably improves air quality, reduces noise and congestion, and – most importantly –  improves the life expectancy of all road users by a significant margin.

Polluted air will cause many people to have respiratory illness or in some cases, life-threatening conditions, and yet we as an industry do little or nothing to reduce this risk.

Compliance with legislation on cleaner vehicles is just that: compliance. We should be aiming to lead best practice and use all available means to improve air quality.

So, when planning your next construction project, don’t just think about your traffic or environmental impact assessments, don’t just think about what is good enough for a construction logistics plan to get a tick in the box – think about what will help the community stay healthy and make the air cleaner for future generations.

Gary Sullivan is chairman of construction logistics contractor Wilson James

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