Alistair Gibb, Wendy Jones and Eleanor Harvey discuss moving mega construction projects forward – what knowledge and skills do OSH professionals need?
Today, OSH professionals need far more than technical expertise and safety knowledge. But which capabilities and attributes are crucial to work successfully on mega construction projects, to move them forward from conception to completion, and from policy to practice?
The Tideway tunnel is a £4bn construction project under the River Thames in London. The seven-metre-diameter [22.97ft], 25km-long [15.5mi] sewer will prevent millions of tonnes of raw sewage spilling into the river every year, and is being built by three joint ventures (representing eight major construction companies) and their complex supply chains. The project began in 2016, with tunnelling starting two years later. Completion is due in 2025.
Construction is a challenging sector for OSH because of the project-based nature of the work, and a culture driven by tight deadlines and low profits (typically about 2%). There is an onus on high-visibility projects such as Tideway to demonstrate the highest standards of OSH.
Between 2016 and 2019, Loughborough University, part-funded by IOSH, worked alongside Tideway to understand how OSH practices unfold on mega projects. As researchers interviewed key individuals and observed meetings, a frequent topic of discussion was the required skills, capabilities and even personalities exhibited by OSH professionals. It was clear that their roles could differ substantially from other parts of the sector in terms of job scope and scale, with added challenges arising from the size of the OSH team and the complexity of the mega project delivery model.
From ‘visionary’ to ‘delivery’
A key finding from the research was the way in which OSH leadership changes as a mega project moves forward. Common qualities were ascribed to those leading OSH at all stages of the project, including being able to delegate and being business-minded. Beyond this, there were distinctions drawn as interviewees described a shift from a need to be strategic and visionary to the importance of being delivery-focused.
Leaders in the early stages, according to interviewees, considered the legacy of the project right from the start: they had to be ambitious, creative, risk-taking – even eccentric. They also needed to sell their ideas to others. This creative approach enabled bold innovation on Tideway, in line with the expectation that the project should be ‘transformational’ and drive change in the whole sector. An example of this is the introduction of EPIC, a one-day, actor-led induction event for everyone working on the project, where delegates are exposed to a ‘real-life’ scenario involving a fatal accident on a construction site.
‘Without him [a senior OSH leader] and his drive, this would not have happened,’ one of those involved said. ‘We touted this idea out to other people… and they said no. And when he heard us, he said yes.’
For those leading OSH later, as construction got under way, interviewees described different characteristics. Good leaders at this stage were described as confident, focused, authoritative and disciplined. It was also important that they could defend and support the OSH team, and be optimistic and collaborative.
'Many characteristics are important at all phases of a mega project: being persuasive, flexible, able to engender trust and innovative'
Change over time was also reported for OSH professionals in other roles on the project. Many interviewees drew a distinction between the ‘OSH planners’, who were best suited to the early stages of the project, doing the preparation and groundwork in an office environment, focusing on policy and procedures; and the ‘OSH doers’, who came later, who were more pragmatic and collaborative.
‘Maybe it’s why I only ever get involved in a job when it gets into construction because I am not the type of person that wants to be at pre-construction, writing works information and pushing paper around,’ one said.
‘Within a year those same people move onto another job, because they’re not delivery-focused, they’re not on the ground when we need to get it done now rather than talk about it… when it gets to delivery it’s a different set of characters,’ said another.
Despite these distinctions, many characteristics are important at all phases of a mega project: being persuasive, flexible, able to engender trust and innovative: one interviewee talked about the importance of being able to ‘spin many plates’.
It is also important that the distinction between different phases is not taken as absolute, otherwise there is a risk that the ‘planners’ will never stay on a project long enough to see the impact of their decisions – and the ‘doers’ will miss opportunities to drive good policies and practices, based on what they have learned.
Regardless of the stage of the project, a high level of expert OSH knowledge is needed for those working on mega projects due to the breadth of activities and innovative techniques and designs. This could include oversight of topics outside of OSH: interviewees on Tideway described how their role at different times had encompassed security, quality, facilities, onboarding and environment.
Specific hazards arising from the nature of the project included tunnelling and the interface with the marine environment. OSH professionals were mostly allocated by location rather than by specialism, and had to become knowledgeable about these in addition to dealing with the more common OSH construction hazards such as fire safety, working from height and the use of heavy lifting equipment.
Tunnelling brings with it many health hazards – silica dust from sprayed concrete in tunnel linings, diesel fumes from the use of locomotives underground, and noise exposures from the use of heavy machinery, often in confined areas.
As the management of health hazards in construction has generally lagged behind those of safety, not all OSH professionals have high expertise in these areas, and work on Tideway pushed the boundaries of their technical knowledge. These included a requirement for shift workers in tunnels to work for no longer than 10 hours a day, and the use of management tools such as the health impact frequency rate to drive improved health management practices. Many adopted this new learning enthusiastically, but also acknowledged their limited expertise and benefited from working alongside occupational hygienists and occupational health advisers embedded on the project.
‘We have hygienists looking at the hand-arm vibration syndrome monitoring regime or the noise levels, or the noise protection zones, or the dust management. Traditionally in construction, the health and safety guys probably wouldn’t really know a great deal about it,’ one contributor said.
Developing this knowledge and cascading it to the wider construction sector is an important priority in the same way that good safety practices have ‘trickled down’ from flagship projects to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the past 10 to 20 years. Interventions on Tideway and other major projects to support development of good occupational health practices in the supply chain (for example, through the use of occupational health maturity matrices) are helping with this, but an increased health content in industry OSH courses might also be a useful approach.
The new OSH role
The size and scope of Tideway meant that many OSH professionals were working in strategic roles, and had to step back from the details. Many also had roles that focused largely on assurance: setting OSH standards for others to follow and assessing them. Practitioners employed by Tideway ensured that the joint ventures were working safely; those employed by the joint ventures oversaw the practices of the SMEs in their supply chain. Some found this less hands-on role more difficult. It will be a new working style for those who are used to being responsible for implementing good OSH practices.
‘I have to be a bit harder. It doesn’t feel natural for me personally, because I’m a helpful guy, but in this role I’m Tideway and we’re absolutely assurance,’ one respondent said.
However, there was also recognition of the positive impact that could be achieved when an OSH professional was skilled in this assurance role: ‘He works with us and he is trying to both push us to improve, but at the same time understand the blockers and deal with them.’
OSH management on mega projects can involve unfamiliar commercial tasks. On Tideway, many central functions such as security, occupational health provision and some training services were contracted out, so that specifying and overseeing contracts was the responsibility of OSH professionals. Procuring new PPE and workwear was a particular challenge, having to balance health and safety factors (such as conspicuity and thermal comfort), diversity (designs were developed to fit women as well as men, and included adaptations for Muslim women) and company brand, with Tideway’s visual identity. The participation of OSH professionals in purchasing decisions is critical, but they are often either not included or not adequately skilled. It is important that practitioners have the skills to get involved in procurement, including learning the language to influence others involved in the decision-making.
Interact, engage, deliver
Many interviewees talked about the importance of communicating effectively. They spoke most enthusiastically about engaging with and influencing frontline workers. They were keen to use their skills on-site, conducting briefings and training sessions, and also to create opportunities to gather the views of the workforce. It was also identified that not all OSH professionals are expert in these areas.
‘The confidence and the ability to engage… if you haven’t got that you are going to lose people in places during the induction. You have to have that ability to interact, deliver and present to a workforce and keep them engaged,’ one said.
These skills, while important for all OSH professionals, are perhaps even more critical in construction where there are short timeframes, rapid turnover of the workforce, and pockets of resistance to good OSH practice from those who hold onto an image of the sector as ‘macho’ and dangerous. Some found it frustrating that they had less direct involvement with the workforce than in the past, and emphasised the importance of keeping their visibility and relationships on-site, even if their core duties lay elsewhere.
'The best outcomes are from diversity: a mix of personalities, skills and expertise... the right people are in the right role at the right time'
The complexity of the delivery model meant that communication with peers was also key. Forty or more OSH professionals could be working on the project at any one time, in the central offices or on-site, as OSH generalists or specialists. Collaboration and relationship building were therefore essential.
‘I think [the three of us] work as kind of one function, we’re a support function. Obviously we have different employment lines, but we’re working for the good of the project. And it’s whether the project teams choose to take that advice or not,’ one interviewee said.
The importance of influencing those outside of OSH was recognised by one or two, but was not as widely mentioned as working with peers or engaging with the workforce, suggesting that there may be a bigger skills gap in this area.
One interviewee commented: ‘You see with main companies they do leadership programmes and give it to project managers. I say: “Why are you not upskilling the health and safety professionals?” Because if they have assertive and influencing skills, they will be able to influence the procurement, they’ll be able to influence the directors. Without those skills, what’s the point?’
The benefits of diversity
A great advantage of mega projects is the scope for a team approach. There are many opportunities to learn from others and see good practice in the planning and in action. The best outcomes are from diversity: a mix of personalities, skills and expertise, ensuring that the right people are in the right role at the right time. OSH professionals on Tideway came from a range of backgrounds: those who had come ‘from the tools’, with excellent practical knowledge and credibility with the workforce; new graduates, with good flexibility, willingness to learn and high ambition; and ex-military, with experience of organising, leading and influencing.
Nevertheless, this research has highlighted some areas where OSH professionals may need training to
be most effective in these roles. Technical knowledge will remain important, and increased knowledge of health hazard management is critical for many. However, this is of little value without the broader skills to support it. To be effective, OSH professionals must engage and influence the workforce, and speak the language of the business.
Alistair Gibb is a professor of construction engineering management at Loughborough University. Wendy Jones and Eleanor Harvey are both research associates at Loughborough University.