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    PREVENTING CATASTROPHIC EVENTS IN CONSTRUCTION

    Report examines key corporate issues for industry leaders to address

    HSE has published a report RR834 – Preventing catastrophic events in construction. The report examines the type of event, why they occur and how the probability of such incidents might be reduced.

    ‘Catastrophic Events’ are descibed as involving multiple casualties on and/or off-site or other gross impacts including serious disruption of infrastructure and/or services. In addition, such events may adversely affect organisations commercially and create public demand for action e.g. a public enquiry and/or changes to relevant legislation. 

    Beyond the ordinary or routine

    The report describes such events as “beyond the ordinary or routine …characterised by being of low probability but high consequence” and examples provided are:

    • Structural collapse of permanent structure;
    • Collapse of temporary works;
    • Collapse of plant or equipment, such as cranes;
    • Fire;
    • Tunnel collapse; and
    • Disruption of underground services.

    In the chemical, oil and gas and the nuclear and rail industries, major hazard scenarios are required to be examined in depth. These potentially catastrophic events are sometimes referred to as ‘Top Events’. It is appreciated that they can have a disastrous impact on a company’s reputation and well-being and upon society. The process of examining the risk of a catastrophic event requires that a ‘safety case’ is prepared, based upon a safety risk assessment.

    Report conclusion

    It was clear that there have been ‘catastrophic events’ with major consequences in construction. Their importance is recognised by the industry, although the report considered that in their day-to-day work few people realised the severity of what might happen if things went seriously wrong. Examples of ‘catastrophic events’ are given in the report.

    Catastrophic events in construction are real issues which require proper consideration by all stakeholders, led by directors and senior staff. There are opportunities for improvement of performance and all stakeholder groups should be involved in agreeing what should be done and making the necessary changes.

    Issues requiring attention

    Issue 1: The industry should recognise that catastrophic events need further attention

    We found that Catastrophic Events are a significant cause for concern and have not received the attention they deserve. Accordingly they should be considered in an appropriate manner and preventative action should be taken as an inherent part of normal construction activity.

    Issue 2: Corporate risk management systems should be improved

    We found that many events had occurred which had significantly impacted at board level upon both construction organisations and upon clients. In order to respond to obligations imposed by legislation and The Turnbull Report, companies’ organisational risk management should include consideration of how well Catastrophic Event risks are being managed. The use of industry-relevant indicators should be explored to support such activity.

    Issue 3: Knowledge, skills and experience of safety risk management should be raised

    The case studies frequently demonstrated a failure among project personnel at all levels to adequately identify the full extent of hazards and address the risks arising; other sources demonstrated a considerable degree of uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the industry’s knowledge, skills and experience of safety risk management. This suggested that more emphasis needed to be given to:

    • Education of those who will be entering the industry
    • CPD and on-the-job training
    • Development of more effective safety risk management systems.

    This issue offers the best promise for long-term incremental improvement and involves all stakeholders.

    Issue 4: Communication and interface management should be improved

    The research emphasised the need for effective communication about hazards and particularly the importance of effective management of risk at interfaces between and within organisations. The report explores areas where improvements can be made.

    This issue underpins the improvement of performance in other issue topics and involves all stakeholders.

    Issue 5: Competence is key

    As expected, the issue of competence (which underpins CDM 2007) was seen to be important. In particular the competent fulfilment of the role of Principal Contractor on site was identified as central to avoiding Catastrophic Events in construction.

    The industry should develop proposals for ensuring that inappropriate Principal Contractors (or more accurately inappropriate persons) do not become responsible for sites where there are risks which could lead to Catastrophic Events; all stakeholders need to be consulted on how this might be achieved.

    Issue 6: Effective management of temporary works is crucial to success

    It was apparent from many case studies that insufficient consideration was being given to the management of temporary works in its widest sense. This work must be taken seriously and include all temporary works aspects, including issues relating to cranes and scaffolding.

    The potential impact of failures of temporary works needs to be considered carefully to reduce the likelihood of a Catastrophic Event occurring and the industry needs to seek to improve performance in this vital area. All stakeholders should be consulted on how to achieve this improvement.

    Issue 7: Independent reviews should be employed

    Evidence was found that the effective use of independent review, from an early stage and ongoing, would have reduced the risk of a catastrophic event.

    Evidence was also found of projects where there was inadequate independent review of what was happening on site and there was concern in the industry that levels of effective supervision had been stripped away over recent decades.

    These issues need to be explored further and encouragement given for clients to seek independent authoritative advice.

    Issue 8: The industry should learn from experience

    Learning from experiences was not found to be well-rooted in the industry. There was lack of confidence that:

    • Learning was shared rapidly;
    • Lessons were incorporated into the education and training process; and
    • Information could be easily accessed.

    There was however activity which needed to be encouraged and supported:

    • The work of SCOSS and CROSS (which needs to be more widely appreciated and publicised); and
    • The work of the various industry bodies and groupings that provide guidance. Ways to improve their effective performance should be investigated and their activities should be inclusive of all industry stakeholders.

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