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Unpacking Construction Site Safety

Dr Fred Sherratt



For Pru


I have worked in the construction industry for over 13 years. I began as a site secretary and worked my way up through the ranks via the planning function to site management. It is an industry full of interesting, entertaining and wonderful people who all make something happen. It is an industry that creates things, that makes places and spaces for people and changes the world we live in. Whilst sometimes fraught with conflict, aggravation and traumas, it is also an industry full of life and laughter and usually someone singing very loudly, a little bit off key. It is an industry that I love.

But it also has a big problem. I have seen the consequences of accidents that have stopped men working for weeks and months. I have had to collect the witness statements and take the photographs of the locations when accidents have occurred. I have had to gather the evidence that they had been inducted and read their method statements for the task they were performing at the time. I have donated to collections to try to keep a family going as no income will be forthcoming for the next few months whilst an injury heals and bills still have to be paid.

My position within this environment enabled me to approach health and safety in a different way from many of my peers. As a woman on site I was different, although I never felt that I did not fit in; I found that construction accepts you if you can do the job you are there to do, no matter what gender, race or age you are. I am able to swear with the best of them, shout when shouting is needed, and coax and persuade when required. And because of this perhaps, I was able to argue from the point of view of the wife or daughter, I was able to show concern where my colleagues resorted to anger, I was able to suggest that the consequences might outweigh the benefits, I was able to say that I was stopping work because I cared. And when this approach was articulated it did make a difference, and people did listen.

However, this did not manage to stop people acting unsafely. Every day I saw that people did not follow the rules, despite inductions and training they still acted unsafely, they still took risks and they still did not always behave with care and concern for everyone else on the site. I sat in training rooms with them on safety culture training programmes, which took a different approach to safety, and I heard the comments afterwards, not to mention the comments before, that they were to lose half a day’s pay for this ‘shite’.

And that is what initiated my research, once I’d finished my degree in construction management I carried on. I wanted to ask the question why, despite best efforts all round, and the agreement that things could still improve in terms of safety (although some of the training left a lot to be desired), did accidents and incidents still occur? Why were we still having collections? Why did you still hear stories and tales of accidents on other sites, of the deaths of people that we had been working alongside only a few months ago? Why in the twenty-first century had this not yet been sorted out?

Alongside my working life spent living the construction dream, I am also a geek. I like to study and explore and think about things, to learn about new ideas and approaches. I could see that most of the ways we tried to measure safety weren’t working; safety climate questionnaires were completed with what the management wanted to hear, not a reflection of reality. This was also the case in academia, where research often measured people as if they were constant, that they could be predicted, that they behaved according to rules and logical thought. Reality tended to argue quite strongly with this. I wanted to know why this didn’t work, or rather, didn’t seem to me to work? What alternatives for exploration existed? Could they help? Could they provide a different perspective on people and help us understand how to make it safer on sites?

Consequently, I started at Plato and carried on. I discovered cognitive theories and became very excited, I applied this thinking to risk taking on sites, and it kind of worked, but didn’t really tell me anything that had not been found out before. And as I kept investigating, I found that maybe this approach couldn’t answer all the questions in terms of my experience. It couldn’t predict or explain everything that was common in terms of the uncommon found on sites, and when it tried it tied itself in paradoxical knots. I kept going, and found social constructionism which through its approach didn’t even try to explain. It enabled acceptance and understanding rather than any ‘scientific’ explanations. It unquestionably embraced variation, irrationality, and crazy stupid people doing crazy stupid things, without trying to explain them. It let you explore and understand, without the need for assumptions or generalisations. As far as I could establish it hadn’t ever been used on construction sites; this approach hadn’t been tried before. Maybe it could throw out some new ideas, some new suggestions that could help?

I could see that it might not provide the answers that people who write training programmes might want to hear. It didn’t produce firm explanations which could be located in the crosshairs and eliminated from sites. Rather it offered insight, illumination and understanding. More thinking would be required once this was achieved, but I wanted to see where this path led. So off I went.


I would like to thank Dr Peter Farrell and Dr Rod Noble for their support and guidance throughout this project – and to Roger Seeds for providing the very first encouragement. Also, thanks must go to Paddy O’Rourke and Julia Stevens for the opportunity to make it happen. And to Barry Rawlinson for his time, efforts and honesty – as always – and yes Egg, this really, really is it!

Chapter One

This book aims to explore and unpack construction site safety. From the very start it must be made clear that this does not include its long-time associate health, or the more recent addition of wellbeing. The reasons for this will quickly become apparent, but are broadly due to differences in the way they emerge on sites, how they are managed in practice, and in part their very essence. As will be examined later, there are fundamental differences between them that should arguably be better acknowledged and considered within construction management, yet for this text they have been set to one side in order to ensure full attention can be paid to the specific concept of construction site safety. However, health in particular does still appear in general contextual discussions, placed alongside safety as part of a seemingly unbreakable, although at times impractical and often not very helpful, amalgam.

This book takes a different approach to safety on construction sites.

Rather than discussing the implementation of various regulations or seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of safety management systems against templates of ‘best practice’, it considers how people think about safety, what it means to them and how they go on to collectively use those ideas in their everyday work. This could also be deemed an evaluation of construction site ‘safety culture’, a notoriously problematic term and one that is discussed in more detail in later chapters.Although to some extent, that is precisely what this book is.

This book takes the approach of asking some very fundamental questions.

  • What is safety on site?
  • Do we agree on our definition?
  • How do we talk about it?
  • How is safety associated with practice?
  • Does it ‘work’?

Although the last question has already been partly answered for us by the fact that we keep appearing in the list of the UK’s most dangerous industries, it, and these other questions, will be explored as construction site safety is unpacked within this book.

The term ‘unpacking’ may seem a little odd. It comes from the way this book has been researched and prepared. It means to pull apart, to challenge, to question and to consider from as wide a variety of perspectives as possible, both academic and practice-based. It therefore lets us take safety apart within the specific construction site context to see what we can find – an ideal approach to help us answer the questions above, allowing us to explore and address them from outside the traditional frameworks of legislation, management systems and best practice. Instead, we can see how these approaches actually work in practice, how they are received by those who have to use them on a daily basis, and how they ultimately contribute to what safety actually is on sites. The way this process has been carried out is discussed in much more detail in Chapter 3.

The context for this book is large UK construction sites (over £15 million in value) operated by large main contractors (found within the top 30 contractors in terms of annual work won by value in the UK), rather than those operated by small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) or micro operations and sole traders. However, smaller industry organisations inevitably participate in work on large sites as they operate as subcontractors within industry supply chains. Research has shown that subcontractors take their ideas of safety with them when they move from project to project (Aboagye-Nimo et al. 2012), and therefore SMEs and even micro-SMEs play a considerable part in helping to create and perpetuate what safety is on large construction sites.

Within the contemporary UK construction industry, main contractors can be seen to be actively trying to improve their safety management through the use of structured Safety Management Systems, a focus on accident targets and various safety management programmes. In this environment, such well-implemented safety management should ideally mean zero accidents, but it doesn’t. Sadly there are still incidents on large projects; the death of a worker in March 2014 on Crossrail in London occurred despite a certified safety management system and Target Zero safety programme being in place (Crossrail 2015). These environments are where ‘traditional’ safety management has been suggested to have plateaued in terms of what it can achieve, and so where new thinking is needed for future improvements.

Reading this book will hopefully support the development of a deeper understanding of safety on sites, which goes beyond practical frameworks of legislation and management systems, and starts to consider the answers to the questions asked earlier in detail. With a better knowledge of how safety actually ‘works’ within the site context, the development and implementation of management systems, interventions and initiatives can be subsequently enhanced and tailored to improve ‘fit’ within this environment. There is also the potential to improve existing safety management practices, by enabling a better understanding of why people might sometimes act as they do when they carry out safety violations, enabling the best course of action to be determined, both with the individual (to engage and educate or to discipline and punish) but also within the wider work context (to change the work method or revise payment practices, for example).

This book is intended for practitioners, academics and students of construction management. It hopes to cross the divide between practice and academia, both of which need each other to gain a complete picture of any aspect of construction management. Where some elements of this book will necessarily explore how we think about things and what this means for our social interactions from academic perspectives, there is also the need to illustrate and explain these academic considerations in relevant and representational contexts of practice.

Although the author is now works as an academic, she has over 10 years’ experience of working on large construction sites in the UK, including several years as a construction section manager. During this time she was directly involved in safety, and has therefore worked through the challenges of its implementation, as well as unfortunately been witness to the repercussions when it has sadly failed.

This book seeks to draw on both academia and practice, and it is hoped that from either perspective, the other viewpoint proves illuminating and that both can be brought together here to give a different, informative and most importantly useful understanding of safety on construction sites.


  1. Aboagye-Nimo, E., Raiden, A., Tietze, S. and King, A. (2012) The use of experience and situated knowledge in ensuring safety among workers of small construction firms. In S.D. Smith (ed.), Proceedings 28th Annual ARCOM Conference, pp. 413–22. Association of Researchers in Construction Management, Edinburgh.
  2. Crossrail (2015) Health and Safety [Online]. Available: [30 March 2015].