Construction needed intensive care before the coronavirus
Image: Anton Deev/Dreamstime.com
The coronavirus has exposed construction’s failed business model. Contractors have been underpinned by low expenditure and minimal investment for decades and the business model must change – urgently, writes Hedley Smyth.
Fundamental action is needed in offices and on sites to address health and safety failings: long and demanding hours to meet deadlines are underpinned by long commutes or working away from home; intense site working for self-employed and agency staff put people at risk; responsibility is inexorably pushed along supply chains to the self-employed construction worker.
Witness the danger construction workers were put into as Covid-19 worsened – compounding their already vulnerable employment status as low-paid workers, on insecure contracts, working long hours, under stress and physical fatigue.
Over recent years, safety statistics have plateaued in developed countries, the UK included, and the main hindrance seems to be organisational behaviours associated with the main contractor business model. Health and safety is driven by legal compliance rather than care for the workforce.
Outside construction, companies have strategic templates for international operations – they develop customised and contextualised health and safety plans, focusing on employee and workforce care, rather than compliance – and we should learn from them.
Current research, funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Transforming Construction Network Plus, is bringing technology together to change the construction business model. The aim is to join up existing technologies, such as Fitbits, tablets or even CCTV and drones, to triangulate real-time data. This could help share and integrate safety learning in construction, improving safety and ultimately productivity.
In a post Covid-19 economy, society needs a healthy and innovative construction sector, so let’s reconsider the business model and put construction into intensive care. We might even achieve a reasonable rate of return along the way.
Hedley Smyth is professor of project enterprises at the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, UCL