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Cavalier builders' attitude raises alarm

Date

Emma Macdonald

ACT CFMEU Branch secretary Dean Hall.

ACT CFMEU Branch secretary Dean Hall. Photo: Karleen Minney

Eight out of 10 Canberra construction bosses and senior managers believe the common approach to industry safety is to ''tick and flick'' paperwork, and 94 per cent agree that ''the bottom line is just get the job done''.

A Safety Culture Leadership Forum convened last month in Canberra by the Master Builders Association, and run by workplace culture and safety consultant Dr Robert Long, questioned 125 mainly middle and senior managers about the safety culture on local construction sites.

Nine out of 10 agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ''I take shortcuts when I can if it is safe.''

The sample composition was 94 per cent directors, managers, project managers, engineers, supervisors and foremen, and 6 per cent construction workers. Respondents were given rapid-fire questions and had just a few seconds to answer using a keypad - a method used to try to understand ''gut feelings'', rather than give respondents time to regurgitate company policy.

The results found that managers largely perceived safety compliance as overly complex, burdensome and they did not believe current regulations adequately prepared people for safety on site.

Dr Long said one of the most common cultural characteristics in building and construction was hubris or ''risk arrogance'' among industry personnel.

''The idea that building and construction people perceive that they can manage anything indicates a lack of reflection, insight and understanding of risk uncertainty,'' Dr Long said.

The survey found some contradictory responses, such as 77 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing that their organisation was ready to deal with anything if it went wrong, but only 49 per cent agreeing the organisation spent adequate time identifying possible hazards or risks.

Half the respondents believed the key to safety was being careful, but Dr Long said this was naive and most people could not differentiate between ''complacency'' and being ''careful''.

Eight in 10 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that ''safety processes are so complex when all you need is commonsense.''

A further 73 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that incidents tended to happen to people who were careless.

Dr Long said ''this high percentage of people in building or construction who blame others, circumstance or themselves for events is fostered by simplistic understanding of risk … and totally misunderstands the nature of incident causation''.

Managers, meanwhile, felt the union's approach to safety was ''unhelpful'', with survey participants suggesting the union's main tactic was to ''bully'' the workplace into health and safety.

And there was a disregard for compliance, illustrated in 59 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing that ''the building and construction industry is more concerned about not being caught than being safe''.

Dr Long found considerable antagonism to compliance bureaucracy with 78 per cent saying the common approach to paperwork was ''tick and flick'' and 89 per cent reporting ''we are so busy on safety paperwork we can't really assess and manage the risks on site''.

Master Builders Association deputy executive director Jerry Howard said the survey results were ''shocking but not surprising''.

He noted that the survey method illustrated ''gut instinct when, if given more time, people might wonder about the right answer to give under the circumstances''.

Mr Howard said the results showed that regulation was not working to improve safety culture in the local industry and he understood a sense of complacency was not just present among workers but right up through the building hierarchy.

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union ACT secretary Dean Hall said the survey backed up the union's longstanding belief that safety is largely self-regulated in the ACT and that ''the only people policing safety at the moment is the union''.

''It's a pretty damning survey which shows those who are responsible for controlling the resources and decision-making processes are stuffing it up and yet they don't want the union to be involved,'' he said.

Mr Hall said the ACT Work Safety inspectorate was ''completely under-resourced and overstretched'' and was totally ''reactionary'' to the spate of serious injuries and the record four deaths across the ACT over the past 12 months. It had been left to the union to promote safety messages and practices across the industry.

The ACT's newly announced Workplace Safety Minister, Simon Corbell, said he had given his inquiry into construction safety another week to write its report after a request from inquiry chairwoman Lynelle Briggs. It was originally due to report this Friday.

Mr Corbell also disputed that WorkSafe inspectors had been halved over the past decade, saying the workforce of 68 employed by ACT WorkCover in 2004 included gas inspectors who were now employed in a different directorate and also included several support staff, no longer required since WorkCover was merged with WorkSafe in 2010.

ACT WorkSafe Commissioner Mark McCabe said it was difficult to compare the two different organisations 10 years apart but inspector numbers had fallen ''significantly'' during that time. He noted that WorkSafe had received five additional inspectors when it was formed in 2010 bringing total inspectorate staff to 34.

''Clearly we have to do more now with less staff at a time when the ACT is experiencing a construction boom,'' Mr McCabe said.

''This latest survey raises serious concerns about the approach being taken across the industry.''

5 comments

  • Even Occupational Health and Safety training for workers is tick and flick - I know, I've been a trainer and assessor. Workers with poor language skills who cannot understand the terminology, doze off and when it's time for assessment, the answers are basically fed to them. I actually worked for a contractor at an air force base, and the OHS training was a joke.

    Commenter
    Wm. Bergmann
    Location
    Gold Coast
    Date and time
    November 13, 2012, 8:30AM
    • One of the downsides of incorporating safety into a quality assurance system is that it has a tendency to compartmentalize responsibility. The site attitude is often "there is a box to tick and I don't have to tick it so it is not my problem". In the 2008 formwork collapse at city west half the people walking past the backpropping should have realized that it was manifestly inadequate and in the old days the site foreman would have had a barrage of warnings. The more modern approach seems to have put blinkers on people and I am sure that was never the intent. Safety should still be everyone's responsibility all day every day but that culture seems to have been replaced by a box with a tick by some safety inspector who may or may not have done a proper job.

      Commenter
      Forensics Junkie
      Date and time
      November 13, 2012, 9:31AM
      • I agree with one point, the paperwork is deemed more important than the risk, people running around asking you to sign this and that, resolving them of responsibility, instead of taking five minutes to look at a situation and then diciding on an action, fixing safty issues would be very quick if you didn't have to fill out a mile of paperwork, more time spent making sure the paprework is risk free, instead of dealing with the risk, the presumption is safety cost money / production, which is false, shut a site for a day and you have lost big time, considering you will have to fix the safety issue after the event, A smart builder would invite the union in and ask for a check up, if the union could take a bipartisan approuch and not go overboard the workers and builder could end up with a win win situation, inclusion is always better than exclusion, and lets not forget some of the workers need to be pulled into line,

        Commenter
        AW
        Date and time
        November 13, 2012, 12:23PM
        • Paperwork is essential to demonstrate a compliant and consultative approach. There are definite problems in our industry with integrating safety practices across all levels of certain businesses. The approach that safety is only union business is rubbish. Safety is everyone's responsibility and it is a shared responsibility. Certainly unions have their place to monitor safety and even help the worker understand what is needed but once safety is made the responsibility of one person or one organisation, such as the union, you end up as the 'go to' person and this will not result in a robust or meaningful outcome for anyone. Its time for the industry to wake up and stop pointing the finger of blame. Lets get on with the job of making workplaces safe and explain to those who struggle with the whole concept of documented risk assessments through to monitoring processes why this is so important and how it will benefit everyone.

          Commenter
          MatrixNational
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          November 13, 2012, 1:17PM
          • AW, you think the union in canberra actually helps?! you must not work in construction!
            The CFMEU is a joke, they are out about them selves, then their members. Frankly they have not a care in the world for construction workers who are not members.

            I remember when the poor chap got run over by the grader in Macgregor, the union cronies came around and told us we were having $50 deducted from our pay to go to his family. Now when the poor youg chap got killed my the concrete pump we did not even see a hat passed around. guess who wasnt a union rep?!

            I have left the construction industry because all the so called watch dogs are weak. They lack bark, let alone a bite!

            Commenter
            Joe
            Date and time
            November 13, 2012, 3:41PM
            Comments are now closed
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