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Meeting safety challenges in construction

Company: Willmott Dixon

Achievement: RoSPA Patron's Award for 25 consecutive Gold Awards in 2022


Background: Willmott Dixon is a large Tier One construction company. It was established in 1852 and the business remains in the hands of the Willmott family. Rick Willmott is the current CEO and his son is already in the business, learning things at a grassroots level. With six construction offices around the UK, coverage is national.

Challenge: Steve George, Regional Head of Safety, Health and Environment Management (North) at Willmott Dixon describes the challenges that the construction industry faces:

“A shortage of skills is a massive issue for our industry. It’s a challenge to encourage people to enter most parts of the industry, from the grassroots level in artisan trades right through to management. Diversity is something the company performs well on, we are actively encouraging an evolution within the industry through different thinking and skills. The whole industry needs reframing in the public eye but it’s a long, multi-generational journey

“Occupational health is another challenge. As an industry, we haven't been great at this over the years. We've put a lot of energy and effort into the safety side, making workplaces safe, making systems of work safe and ensuring equipment is safe. Occupational health however has lagged behind, so that's something we need to prioritise collectively. We need to get on top of occupational health issues and ensure that the people now joining the industry don't end up with the same legacy that sadly some of those leaving our industry have. Mental health is something that, as a business, we take extremely seriously, for our people and for the supply chain that we work with.

“The other thing currently at the fore is the Building Safety Act and how it’s going to affect us as an industry. It is more aimed at the front end around design, but as a safety, health and environment professional, part of my role is to advise and support our pre-construction teams as part of a ‘whole project’ approach to health and safety.

“Another thing I want to focus on specifically is behaviour. I'm not a behavioural scientist but I have 51 years of lived experience, 33 years of working in the construction industry and 24 years of doing this job as a SHE professional so I've seen a few things over my time. I've had to deal with several serious incidents as a SHE professional and, yes, we've been, as an industry, very quick to point fingers at people and blame individuals.

“So the great challenge for us is continually developing how we engage with the people that we work with. We need to start where they are and always discuss the ‘why’ behind the actions that they're taking. Often, people don't fully appreciate the potential consequences of it going wrong as they are focused on deliverables. It’s our job to shift their mindset to one where performance and safety are linked: no matter the profit, quality or efficiency of a site, it’s not a success if it’s not safe.”

Results: Steve George says: “I think the industry is now moving forward in understanding that we have a part to play in ensuring that people have safe places to work, but also understanding the environment where they can actually earn a living and work safely, and ensuring the environment encourages them to work safely. I see the most important part of my role as creating the right conditions for safe working.

“Most people at work are trying to do a job, they’re trying to get something done. We are an industry of fixers. We're an industry of people that when we find a problem, we try to overcome it, and we try and fix it. Choice is one of those things that we all have. As a SHE professional, it can be frustrating when we’ve put many systems in place, only for people to make a choice that is deemed not to be safe. For them, it’s fine at the time, but sometimes by then, they haven't learned the ultimate lesson.

“As a team committed to SHE, and through people like RoSPA, we are trying to educate people around where safety sits, without them having to pay the ultimate price. Therefore, at Willmott Dixon, we set out several years ago to improve engagement with the people we work with. We brought in our behavioural safety programme, something we call ‘All Safe’, based on values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. We've invested a lot of time in supporting our supply chain partners and our people, to try to understand the things that drive our behaviour and the areas that we need to focus on. Above the foundation stones of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours we have six pillars that we focus on: Lead, Communicate, Partner, Learn, Innovate and Recognise. This framework has proven vital in nurturing an ongoing dialogue about safe working that respects and educates people. This allows us to engineer the right culture of behavioural safety at all levels and within all parts of our team.

“A lot of work has gone into understanding where we need to drive focus. For example, we have a system of due diligence that we carry out on our supply chain partners. A lot of time is spent understanding the work they're going to do, understanding the barriers and blockers that might get in the way, and the part we can play as a Tier One principal contractor to ensure that when their people arrive on-site, they can go about their work and they don’t have to deviate from what's been agreed. We've always had the belief that if we can create the right environment, then people can work safely, they can earn a decent living and go home safe at the end of the day. That's all that we want as a business and what everyone deserves as a minimum.

“We've started to change the narrative around how our senior leadership teams view health and safety. The conversations we've had at board level around the presence of safety aren't just defined by the lack of accidents. You can have no accidents and still be an unsafe place to work. They don't always go hand in hand.

“We’ve been encouraging our business to celebrate more of the good work we do, rather than focusing on the very, very small percentage of things that go wrong. We're not saying we can ignore the things that go wrong: we always learn from those things and feed lessons identified into our systems, training and the things that we focus on. That said, it’s easy to focus just on the negative. We have found that if we can replicate the 99 per cent of good work that we do, and spend more time unpicking why it went well and replicating that elsewhere, then it's also going to move us in the right direction.

“We've put several systems in place to help us to continually improve. We've gotten far better at monitoring trends across our projects, and we fully encourage our people and our supply chain to report not only negative safety observations, but positive things as well; things that they’ve seen and heard, or they’d like to see. If somebody is doing something across the industry that's a better way we will take it on board, we will adopt it, and we will use it.

“We’ve brought in digital pre-enrolment which is a great step forward for us. An online offsite process allows our supply chain to go through and demonstrate some of the basic things that the industry expects from its workforce before they even arrive with us. When they arrive, our teams are focused on the actual specifics of that project. It’s more efficient and more tailored to individual needs so adds more value to each project.

“We're seeing a massive shift towards looking at things through a different lens. Through the likes of organisations like RoSPA and the Construction Leadership Council, we're starting to see the narrative change across the industry.

“We've still got a long way to go, though. We've still got people in our profession who will take a bit of convincing that this is a better way, a more engaging way to work and treating people as people… rather than believing success is simply dependent on compliance with legislation alone.

“Educational consultant Todd Whitaker said: ‘The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate.’ There's so much truth in that. We’ve spent a lot of time with our senior management team about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. We've engaged with our supply chain senior management teams as well and we are seeing the benefit. We are seeing people approach us more on-site now and, believe it or not, they are looking forward to seeing a safety professional come onto the site. Long gone are the days of hearing the words ‘safety manager’ and everyone hustling to start to do things correctly in fear of getting caught out. People are now doing things correctly when nobody's looking, which makes all of our hard work worthwhile.”

June 2023

We’ve spent a lot of time with our senior management team about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. We've engaged with our supply chain senior management teams as well and we are seeing the benefit. We are seeing people approach us more on-site now and, believe it or not, they are looking forward to seeing a safety professional come onto the site.”             

Steve George, Willmott Dixon


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