Managing risk in UK construction

4 October 2011

Cutting risks keeps people safe, boosts morale and adds to the bottom line, says Stuart Shirreff, head of safety and assurance at KDC, the demolition, decommissioning and land remediation company.

Over the past twenty years the increase in legislation and governance across all sectors, from chemical to industrial, has sparked considerable debate. There are many, including elements of the popular media, who complain of an overly protective ‘nanny state’. At the same time, the same media are quick to attack any individual or organisation seen to be responsible for health, safety or environmental failings.

Construction is an industry sector that all too often takes solace in blaming the ‘Health & Safety police’ for stopping them working and delivering in a timely and economic fashion.

However, it is possible to improve efficiency, enhance safety and improve employee engagement by adopting a fresh approach. Good ergonomics, interventions and a skilful balancing act will achieve positive results.


Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HASAWA 1974) there have been several reviews and reports concerning the standard of health and safety in UK industries. In the construction sector there have been numerous HS&E research reports [1-3] considering how best to improve the standard of health and safety in this high risk sector.

Many of these reports share common themes; there is a plethora of legislation, which causes confusion and dismay in all stakeholders particularly smaller companies. In many cases it is seen as an unnecessary burden.

The Robens 1972 [1] report stated it was not unreasonable that those generating risks from work activities should be responsible for managing and controlling those risks. This ideology was implemented with the introduction of the HASAWA 1974 and later enhanced in the Management of Health and safety at Work regulations 1992 (amended 1999) (MHSW 99).

However, understanding risks and producing effective risk assessments is not the same thing. So, due in part to poor interpretation of legislation and the numerous potential perceptions of risk, the writing of ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessments became deemed as something of a dark art.

Let’s be clear

Organisations that are engineering-based or operating in safety critical environments often insist on a probabilistic and quantitatively based approach to risk assessments. The fact is (backed up by a two year case study leading to the publication of my paper) many people involved in these working environments find it difficult to understand such an approach. The various inconsistencies and grey areas that arise in Risk Assessments (RA) and Method Statements (MS) formats mean that people simply can’t understand what is required, how safe an activity is or how to perform a task or function safely.

Hosting a ‘toolbox talk’ with colleagues – where the contents of risk assessments and what the significance of the number matrix means to the working operatives is very revealing. Many people neither know the legislation being referred to in sufficient detail to make comment or more importantly know the significance of rating something as risk factor 9 instead of 7. In their terms a risk will be defined as a high risk or a low risk.

When writing RA and MS plain English should be used with no reference to legislation unless in a terminology that explains exactly what is required. Infographics are key.

Removing a quantitative number matrix from risk assessments is a major step in the right direction, it eliminates number crunching, something KDC safety team were keen to avoid. Far more practical are the terms LOW, MEDIUM, HIGH and UNACCEPTABLE alongside a traffic light colour coding; green signifying LOW, amber MEDIUM, Red HIGH and black as UNACCEPTABLE. This visual communication is far more effective than having to interpret lines of numbers, certainly in regard to a construction based environment.

Method statements should read like a storyboard explaining how the work sequence would be carried out in a logical manner and who by, with named persons in regard to line management supervision. A method statement should be completed for each significant section of work; they would be task specific and wherever possible, reduced to a single page. Site supervisors - who are responsible for the tasks should then read the method statements to the task team and clarify understanding. The work method is then signed by all to confirm compliance and agreement.

Set milestones

It’s important to be specific with organisational targets. KDC targeted a million hours as a timespan free from making a formal report under the reporting of injuries diseases and dangerous occurrences regulations (RIDDOR 95). The business prides itself on its safety culture and has recently achieved 1.7 million man hours without a requirement to file a report to Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This sort of achievement should be seen as a significant milestone within your organisation and a source of pride for the workplace and something to be proud of with customers and associates.


Senior and project managers who are responsible for the writing of RA and MS were tasked with identifying what the hazards are, how they can be realised and how they can be controlled. Undertaking internal workshops and explaining the milestone and how it will impact on the business helps with internal communications as well as enables people to take ownership of health and safety. Employees and customers will be more engaged with a process if they can understand why they need to comply with a MS.

This results in a closer working relationship between safety and general production management with both teams having a better understanding of other management roles within the business.

Review everything

Reviewing a process and the documentation is an opportunity to offer advice and assistance – not to police the system. Positive feedback and support should be offered rather than looking to blame and punish. A regular review process should measure the documentation against approved codes of practice and industry guidance to ensure that best practice is being applied wherever possible and that ‘true’ risk management is being prioritised over or alongside ‘technical compliance’.

By following these main points health and safety will increasingly be being viewed as a support role for people and organisations - not a policing role.

[1] Robens A. 1972, Safety and Health at Work (HMSO).

[2] Smith T. 1997, Robens Revisited- An examination of Health and Safety Law 25 years after the Robens Report with particular emphasis on the Explosives Industry. Enterprise publication available on-line from

[3] Young D. (2010), Common Sense-Common Safety. (HMSO)

About KDC

KDC employs over 130 people. It delivers decontamination, decommissioning, demolition and remediation services for the power, pharmaceutical, chemical, industrial, petrochemical and nuclear industries.  Clients Stuart has worked with include BNFL, RSRL, Magnox, AWE, BP,Chevron, AstraZeneca, Scottish Power and GSK. See

A full case study paper (Shirreff, S. Baird, A. (2011) ‘Managing risk in construction – getting the balance right’, CRC Press, London) is available from CRC Press Contemporary Ergonomics and Human Factors 2011: Proceedings of the international conference on Ergonomics & Human Factors 2011 CRC Press, London. Editor, Martin Anderson, Health and Safety Executive, Bootle ,UK.

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