The athletes’ village sits at the heart of every global sporting event. But building these temporary cities against the clock requires a robust OSH culture.
Ever since the first Summer Games in 1896, the Olympics have been much more than an international sports competition. Their importance in promoting unity, cooperation and global understanding cannot be overstated. Holding an international sporting event of this magnitude can profoundly change host cities, leaving them a valuable legacy, with benefits linked to socioeconomic growth, cultural influence and, in some cases, long-term sustainable urban development.
And at the heart of the Games, World Cups and every other major sporting event, the athletes’ (or sports) village represents a home-from-home for participants, a place to prepare for competing and a forum for cultural exchange.
Finding the right location to avoid hazards and ensure the viability of the project in the long term is key
Building a successful village that adequately responds to athletes’ needs is central to the success of any international competition. As with all large projects of this nature, many stakeholders from the construction industry are involved in commissioning, designing, developing, building and delivering apartments for the athletes alongside other on-site facilities. Clinical and occupational health professionals, and hostelry and security staff also play a key role in the management of the village.
Commissioning and development
‘Building an athletes’ village is very different from building a touristic complex,’ says Dr Mark Robinson, associate professor in organisational psychology at the University of Leeds. ‘It’s essentially building a small city with temporary transport links, sports grounds, accommodation, and with all the different actors usually involved in construction, urban planning – but also security and hospitality – having to work together to tight schedules.’
Since developing a sports village is such a complex endeavour, specific health and safety risks need to be properly assessed before the project starts. Different issues will arise depending on the overall health and safety culture of the host country, but also on aspects such as the climate and whether existing venues are being repurposed or construction is starting from scratch. From World Cup venues in the Qatar desert to an Olympic park in east London, the starkly different requirements will be reflected in the health and safety measures that are implemented.
But regardless of the project, robust health and safety protocols need to be in place for its different phases – construction, operation and decommissioning. ‘The stakeholder management will be the same in principle for any large international event,’ says Simon Garrett, managing director at X-Venture Global Risk Solutions.
‘At corporate level, this requires a strong policy and risk assessment-based approach that takes into account the unique context of the event. The key stakeholders need to be accredited as competent with regard to health and safety and then this is verified by the organisers to create safety plans – one of which would be for the athletes’ village.’
The project must also be infused with a robust health and safety culture from the design phase. While the UK’s Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 place duties on designers to consider the health and safety implications of their designs in relation to the construction, use and maintenance of structures, a recent IOSH report (see Resources) suggests the majority fail to recognise the impact on health and safety they can have – and that can be especially problematic in the context of an international sporting event.
Early engagement with design teams and further training on OSH awareness for designers and architects are good practices to implement if health risks are to be more effectively ironed out before they reach construction sites.
Safety culture: Checklist for success
The GB Health and Safety Executive reported on the instillation of a strong safety culture during the construction of the London Olympic Park and village in 2012. What are these tips for success?
- Set safety as a priority and integrate into companies and contractors from the outset.
- Ensure the entire supply chain is culturally aligned, with consistent commitment to OSH standards.
- Engage tier 1 contractors to develop their own good practice and drive their own performance.
- Management should be visible, approachable and lead by example.
- Use credible champions and incentives to encourage positive behaviours, such as donating money to charity for observations submitted.
- Create regular opportunities for workers to discuss health, welfare, safety and environmental issues with managers and ensure agreed actions are followed through.
- Develop risk assessments following a structured process, with involvement from appropriately experienced workers who are familiar with the work tasks being assessed.
- Develop a variety of reporting methods, communicate these to workers and consider ways of refreshing the methods adopted to keep their importance at the forefront of workers’ minds.
- Devote time and resources to enable workers to develop strong, positive, working relationships, and take responsibility for their own and others health and safety.
- Begin planning of work early to ensure resources (human and equipment) are agreed and allocated prior to the project start date and to ensure enough time is allocated to complete the work safely.
During the event, promoting a culture of health and safety within the village is imperative. The services commissioned by the organiser should keep the wellbeing of athletes in mind at all times.
‘Running the accommodation – temporary or otherwise – essentially becomes a building service contract,’ explains Simon. ‘Security and fire safety are paramount. Unlike an accommodation block in a university, one of the biggest factors that needs to be taken into account is the fact that all the occupants will be in unfamiliar surroundings, without necessarily a good command of English, so key information and signage needs to take this into account.’
Accommodation that allows the athletes to rest – and therefore perform at their best – should be factored in to the running as well as the design of the village. ‘Sleep is of paramount importance for athletes in a competition; people are flying from different time zones, so they need time to adjust and recover from jet lag,’ says Mark. ‘You need to make sure you have adequate soundproofing and curtains that can block out daylight.’
Specific organisational aspects – such as the timing of when different sports disciplines will compete – also need to be considered. For instance, allocating apartments to a team that will compete early in the competition in the same area as a team who will compete later in the competition could be problematic, as the former group may want to relax just as the latter will need to focus.
OSH involvement: Lessons from London 2012
The construction of the London Olympic Park and Village is widely viewed as one of the safest projects in the history of the Olympics, with no fatalities reported (although some media reports have disputed that claim).
While the exact model may not be replicable on all future projects – including the construction of future villages – some elements such as engagement with managers and workers on-site could be transferred across the industry, and/or appropriately scaled for more modest budgets.
The input of a dedicated team of OSH professionals can be essential for success, as the commissioning and build of London 2012’s Olympic Park suggests (see Resources, below). Here, an OSH service was set up as part of a commitment to protecting the health and safety of workers on the build.
As shown by a HSE report, OSH professionals worked in an integrated way to prevent and treat occupational ill health and promote healthy behaviours, taking part in senior management meetings to hear about specific health and safety challenges.
Having both prevention and clinical services on-site can be helpful. This may mean employing occupational health nurses and physicians to procure health services for workers, including pre-employment and safety-critical medical checks, health surveillance and on-site emergency services – as well as occupational hygienists, who are skilled in the recognition of hazards and the evaluation and control of risks.
The London team developed a ‘health like safety’ approach; the aim of which was to integrate good practice into day-to-day working by using existing safety management tools, such as near-miss reporting and maturity matrices, as the basis for tools to target health risks.
The most successful projects are those where OSH professionals and managers on-site interact, include workers in their decisions around health and safety policies, and listen to their concerns.
As with all events of this magnitude, challenges can arise – the site is a unique and untried construction, while the teams providing different on-site services may not have worked together and may be from a wide range of nations. Even so, there is little room for error: despite workers constructing up to the last minute, with no ‘old hands’ to learn from, and little chance of ironing out snags before ‘going live’, athletes will still expect everything to work seamlessly from the moment they arrive.
‘In any given village, some things are bound to go wrong and it’s impossible to test everything in advance,’ agrees Tony Sainsbury, London 2012 village general manager, who was in charge of the athletes’ village master planning and operational delivery. ‘During Sydney’s  Olympics, for example, we discovered that we had water cascading into the car parks during a full security check, just as the athletes were about to arrive. You have to deal with it and have good teams in place to respond, because there’s no way to test everything in advance and make sure everything will go right.’
Strong communication between all stakeholders is crucial – which includes good collaboration between the staff working on-site and the teams’ managers. As Simon points out: ‘Primary responsibility for the athletes’ welfare rests with the team management and the chef de mission for each team. They know the needs of their individual athletes.
‘There have been many occasions in the past when teams had to make decisions even before travelling, such as with the Zika virus in Brazil. Presumably, the same will apply this year in Tokyo. The hosts have to supply the facilities to ensure this can be properly managed.’
Welfare and sustainability
With events as visible and popular as the Olympics, the success of health and safety strategies depends not only on protecting workers from injuries and death but also on promoting a culture of wellbeing that permeates all stages of the project and beyond.
But this is not always the case in practice. A 2019 BWI report (see Resources), which was published after a delegation visited Tokyo, suggested poor working conditions and diminished labour rights were commonplace during the construction of the 2020 Olympic village. According to the study, migrant workers in particular were reported as having to work in poor conditions and ‘left to do only menial tasks, such as handling raw materials’.
Key to the legacy of a sports village is the degree to which health and safety strategies integrate elements of sustainability. This requires a clear vision for what the village and sports venues are to become once the event is over – or how it will be decommissioned.
In Tokyo, the Olympic village for the delayed 2020 Games has been constructed from 40,000 pieces of sustainable wood that can then be taken down after the event. And Japanese company Airweave has supplied modular cardboard beds and recyclable mattresses for athletes. Even medals will be made from gold, silver and bronze harvested from electronic devices.
Finding the right location to avoid hazards and ensure the viability of the project in the long term is also key. ‘The location of the Athens village was moved around three times because no real planning had been done to take into account the risk of earthquakes or the potential discovery of an archaeological site,’ Tony explains. ‘It ended up being more than 20km [12.43mi] away from the city, in the middle of the countryside, and post-Games, it ended up vandalised, with a dislocated and impoverished community.
‘If you decide on the village’s location [once you’ve been named as host] without having done all the preliminary work to identify what will work in terms of viability, sustainability and long-term development for the city, you are in trouble,’ says Tony.
The eyes of the world are, quite literally, on the construction, use and afterlife of Olympic villages. Delays, accidents and deaths lead news bulletins, and spiralling budgets and zombie Olympic villages become shorthand for poor planning and sustainability. Too many slip-ups can make headlines around the world and damage national pride. But, as seen in Barcelona and London, by deeply embedding good health and safety practice, instilling a strong safety culture and putting future use at the heart of projects, the construction of Olympic villages can be sustainable and successful.
Illustration credit | Arunas Kacinskas
Image credit | Getty
- IOSH report – Improving designers’ knowledge of hazards
- HSE report – Occupational health provision on the Olympic Park and athletes’ village
- HSE report – Safety culture on the Olympic Park
- BWI report – The dark side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics
- ENR article – London Olympics construction is safest in recent times
- IOSH funded research – Talk the talk – walk the walk