The health and safety director at the world’s largest construction contractor (by turnover) is not a big fan of the concept of zero accidents.
“It reduces health and safety to the worst excesses of Saturday night talent shows,” says Andy Sneddon CMIOSH, “where ever-greater outlandish claims for our commitment become the norm. It’s not based on an intelligent view of what’s achievable.”
Of big corporations’ initiatives, he says: “The marketing is almost comic sometimes. I’m waiting for someone to break cover and declare they are going to go below zero.”
Sneddon has held the top safety job at Vinci for five years in a career that has included stints at major construction clients such as airport operator BAA, Tesco and British Nuclear Fuels after a grounding in the regulatory world at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the 1990s.
He is clearly frustrated by what he sees as an “absolutist” misstep by some in the safety profession on the path of harm reduction.
Setting unrealistic goals creates an untenable position, he says, where chief executives and safety heads feel the need to trump their last promises, “and rather than an honest debate about what’s achievable it becomes a race to the top in terms of commitment, which is hard to stop”.
I can’t let the subject pass without pointing out that the health and safety page of the Vinci group website states that zero accidents is the company’s “single policy objective”.
“We are forced to play that game,” he admits, saying that a commitment to zero harm is part of the informal prequalification criteria clients apply to many big construction contracts. “What we don’t do is market around it in the same aggressive way as some of our peers,” he notes. “Our behavioural brand is Step Up, ‘safety through everyone’s participation’, which deliberately doesn’t make use of the notion of zero.
“We have to play the game,” he says again. “But we have to change the game.”
The scheme of things
As health, safety and environment director, Andy Sneddon reports directly to Vinci's chief executive, Bruno Dupety. He is responsible for strategy and policy on his triple brief.
"I suppose what I'm trying to do is set the trajectory," he says.
He sits on the senior management team with the managing directors of Vinci Facilities, Vinci Construction and the civil engineering arm Taylor Woodrow.
Sneddon leads a central Health and Safety Executive (HSE) team of eight carrying out monitoring, support and advice to all the divisions.
"It's small when you consider it's a business with a turnover of about £1.3bn," he says. "When you look at my peers in companies with a similar turnover, many of them have teams with around 100 staff."
The eight gather assurance data and manage the relationships with the divisions in Vinci. Two are based in the construction division, three in the facilities business. There is a larger group of around 20 project-based safety advisers at Taylor Woodrow, who, Sneddon explains, are "dotted line" reports through to him but answer primarily to the senior managers of the massive transport infrastructure projects the division handles.
Sneddon's team audits health, safety and environment performance across the divisions using a scored formula business risk assessment guide (BRAG) system. Members carry out site visits and supervise certification audits for management standards including BS OHSAS 18001 and ISO 14001.
He says the team tries to exert an influence at key points in a construction project such as pre-start meetings in project set-up.
"My guys will also watch key milestones with critical-risk subcontractors," he says. "They also attend divisional managing directors' meetings to be a voice around commercial decision-making and risk, to act as a kind of early warning where we feel we could get into trouble."
These interventions are more important to guaranteeing safety and health standards than the certification systems, he believes.
"The less formal, less process-driven part is really the most effective," he says. "What works for me is I have very capable direct reports in each division and they have the ear of the managing directors."
From a contractor’s perspective, he clearly believes the game’s rules are written by those at the top of some of the organisations awarding big contracts, but that they are not setting the right priorities.
“We should be grateful that the bigger clients have bought into the fact that health and safety should have due consideration,” he concedes, “but chief executives in the biggest client organisations have almost learned a standard script. They are practised in giving 15-minute speeches on the importance of safety and health to their organisations … but I wish they reflected more when they get off the podium on the choices they make.”
He says the major public bodies who contract Vinci for civil engineering projects are headed by “incredibly strong intellects with great track records. They understand about procuring massive construction projects in really large organisations. But what I see as an output in terms of [safety] strategy is muddled and ill-conceived and not subject to any kind of critical input from the people who have to implement it”.
He cites the Highways Agency’s recent five-year health and safety plan which he says has 122 objectives and which “feels more like a shopping list than a strategy”.
He understands there are reasons for what he sees as a lack of focus on what works best, “but what frustrates me is that they wouldn’t accept that kind of disengagement in any other area.”
I suggest that some of his criticism could be seen as driven by the inevitable friction caused by a big contractor with a mature risk management structure having another major organisation’s processes (the client’s) imposed as an overlay.
He insists he just wants everyone in the sector to concentrate on proportionate controls, rather than layering initiative on initiative and wishes he had the chance to lobby business heads to discuss ways to do so.
“On behalf of contractors I’ll put my hand in the air and say we are culpable in this problem,” he says. “We don’t challenge our clients, so we can blame them for only part of the problem.
“That’s one of the next great challenges for me: how can I organise our organisation to be more of a critical friend to Network Rail or the Highways Agency?”
If he fails, he says, he is doomed to sit in a line with other contractors in front of clients, “nodding for 40 minutes and asking polite questions, rather than saying ‘Why are you doing that? The industry has been developing something else for 15 years.’ Or ‘That’s not based on sound risk management’.”
He adds: “It’s not a grown-up relationship. People like me need to be more challenging inside our organisations, saying to the people who own those client relationships: ‘You need to be talking about this topic.’”
He says he will be interested to see whether speaking truth to power will be a function of Build UK, the new trade body for major contractors formed last year when the National Specialist Contractors’ Council and the UK Contractors Group (UKCG) merged. He hopes Build UK’s chief executive, Suzannah Nichol, will be more of a lobbyist for the contractors.
One example of the blanket provisions mandated by clients that sticks in Sneddon’s craw is the trend towards screening to restrict workers with health conditions from hazardous activities on site, or even from whole projects. He believes this approach risks “medicalising” the construction workforce.
“It’s got a nice ring to it: we are going to give the entire workforce medical screening,” he says. “But it’s completely in opposition to a common-sense risk management approach.”
He has nothing against health checks for workers and educating them to try to improve their fitness. His objection is only to screening as a way to restrict entry to the workplace. This kind of blanket screening has no support from the HSE, he says. “They are careful to make the case that health surveillance and the role of the occupational health provider only come after the filters of risk elimination have been applied. But that message isn’t being heard.
“My acceptance of screening would be for safety-critical workers, and then there’s a risk of what you categorise as safety critical work. On some of our larger projects the list seems endless and I have to rein that back in, because I say ‘who’s left?’”
He would always include plant operators in the safety critical category, he says, but few others.
Screening is seen as an easy fix, he believes. “Clients say ‘I’ll write a cheque for health screening across all our employees and I’ll pass that burden on to everyone down the supply chain’.
“If you look at the general population, most of us over 50 have a back problem. Many of us have health complaints of various shapes and sizes. We’d be likely to exacerbate those problems on a construction project. So the only way to avoid that is to exclude us and people like us.”
He says the model also ignores the industry’s reliance on agency labour and the fact that there is no one providing health support to the nominally self-employed workforce. Constructing Better Health (CBH), the not-for-profit organisation offering occupational health services to the industry, on which Sneddon serves as a board member, has the potential to meet that need as an independent source of occupational health advice for construction workers, “but its mode of operation has necessarily been around blackmailing contractors to pay fees to CBH on the back of a client mandate”.
The then UKCG, representing the big builders, nominated Sneddon to the CBH board “partly to address that unhelpful dynamic”. This remains under discussion, “but the dilemma CBH has is that its continued financial existence relies on that income stream driven by clients. So they have a Gordian knot, which gets tighter whichever end they pull”.
Sneddon is still hopeful of an answer, although his preference would be for CBH to be recast as an individual subscription scheme with a low fee per worker in return for help with occupational health advice and services. Contractors could pay the fees for their own workers they judged were exposed to health risks such as excessive dust or vibration “rather than paying £10,000 or £15,000 just because we are told to by Crossrail”.
Working for a French multinational, Andy Sneddon says he has had to acclimatise to some cultural variations.
"The meeting culture in France is very different from that in the UK," he says. "Here it's about a strict agenda, outputs, making decisions and getting back to the day job. In France it's not uncommon to devote an entire day to a meeting where the conversation is unconstrained, everyone's given an enormous amount of time to contribute. The chairing is incredibly light touch.
"A staple of the French meeting is the 'tour de table' which means we go round the table and every individual has unlimited time to talk about topics of interest, which can take hours."
For all the frustration this Gallic garrulousness can provoke in those used to Anglo-Saxon brevity, he says over his five years at Vinci he has overcome his resistance because he can pick up valuable information in these longer sessions that might be missed in a more agenda-driven meeting.
"I've also started to form relationships, despite language barriers, with some of my peers who are predominantly French speakers."
But he watches Brits new to the culture whose frustration is palpable: "You can see them thinking: "Get to the point! Get to the point!"
He believes that for all the good work on the London east-west rail link – where Vinci was part of the consortium building station tunnels – behavioural safety observations and root cause analysis of injuries led to a strong emphasis on reducing musculoskeletal problems. Vinci’s own investigations into its work on the project highlighted mechanical lifting failures and problems with temporary works arrangements, carrying more severe risk.
“No one got hurt,” he says, “but we weren’t discussing those issues with the client, we were talking about back injuries.”
He says the focus on Crossrail was too much on looking for unsafe behaviour and not enough on drawing out the lessons it pointed up about management processes: “What’s driving people to shortcut a permit system on temporary works? What’s behind the commercial decision to proceed with a lifting operation when the lifting mat is sub-spec? Those things are less immediate but far more important.”
What he sees as this distracting attention to lower-level risk makes it harder for him to win over people in his own organisation and supply chain and to make the case for good safety management.
“As a profession we have to find a way to elevate our discourse about this stuff, a way that is more challenging and more self-critical.
“I wish more health and safety professionals would say ‘we should do a bit less’.
“When I talk in confidence with a lot of senior people in the construction industry many of us share these views, but we struggle to bring it into the public realm.”
I suggest value engineering safety and health programmes might mean that we keep injuring people or making them ill at the current rates for the foreseeable future, however cost effectively.
“We have a skinnier management system than most [at Vinci],” he counters. “But, for what it’s worth, our AFR rates were in the top five for UKCG companies last year. So, in terms of traditional metrics, we are doing something right. Less can be more.”
The company’s seven-day accident frequency rate is 0.07, around half the UK major contractors’ average. “Our LTI [lost-time injury] rate is 0.45. That’s still an important metric in the boardroom and I still haven’t broken the fixed attention on that number.”
But he says he tries to focus the board’s attention on risk potential rather than outcome, and is directing more resources into analysis of high-risk near-misses.
On heavy paper
When he moved to Vinci from Tesco in 2011, Sneddon inherited a well-founded system where it was accepted that “operational management own safety”.
What did need fixing, he says, was that safety and health were “incredibly bureaucratic”. There were more than 250 documents derived from the management system, including hazard communication guides or standard phase plans and pre-start lists.
Sneddon spent his first months visiting the company’s sites trying to gain the trust of the management teams, “just teasing out from them how they thought it was working”. The answer, he says, was that most of them weren’t using many of the documents and hadn’t done for years.
“They were being selective because they knew it wasn’t going to deliver what they wanted,” he says. “It was an attempt to standardise a process but what it had done was take all the thinking out of it. So with a subcontractor about to start, the thought process [the system encouraged] wasn’t: ‘We need to talk to him about the risk he’s importing to our job and the constraints we need to place on him,’ it was: ‘We need to run through a form and tick some boxes and then we’ve done safety for that stage of the project.’”
The less capable were comfortable with this abrogation of responsibility to a set of checklists, “but the leading guys in the business looked at it with disdain and pushed it to one side and did their own thing”. This left a mix of high-performing sites that didn’t comply with Vinci’s systems and highly compliant ones with poor safety and health standards.
“I took a lot of joy in sweeping a lot of this aside,” Sneddon admits.
“What we are left with now is a suite of minimum standards. I think there are 20, all one or two, maximum three, sides of A4.”
This brevity is a stricture placed on anyone writing a Vinci safety and health policy, he says, based on the assumption that 80% of people will not read longer documents.
He prescribes measures only when he sees a commercial crunch point which flags up is an obvious conflict of interest between profitability and good safety.
One example is competence requirements for site work. For some key roles these need setting out, such as the SSSTS (Site Supervisors Safety Training Scheme) for subcontractors’ supervisory staff. “I couldn’t leave that to a commercial choice,” he says, “because experience has taught us that this industry will not spend the money developing its staff unless it’s a barrier to entry.”
Permits for hazardous activities such as work around buried services or temporary works is another area where Vinci’s standards are clearly defined for subcontractors. “But I still revisit those areas because I’m still quite uncomfortable with pushing a prescriptive process for anything.”
For the bulk of risks on a construction site or in a facilities operation, he says he has, literally, a “blank sheet” approach. “It caused some consternation at first because I’d say to the teams ‘There’s your new plan’ and they’d say ‘There’s nothing on it’ and I’d say ‘I know there isn’t. You need to populate it and I don’t want to see any cut and paste’.”
He stresses to anyone charged with safety that the management system must not be cluttered with minor hazards such as poor housekeeping or avoiding trips at ground level: “I want them to identify and document in simple terms what the high-consequence risks are on the project and how they are going to manage them. That document will be what they are held account for.”
These documents are called risk control schedules. “I do play around with the semantics and what we call things,” he says, “because so much of the safety terminology – risk assessments, method statements – carries with it such heavy baggage. So we have the schedule and task briefings and task control sheets. I leave safety out of the titles when I can.”
March 2011-present: Group director of health, safety and environment, Vinci
May 2010 - March 2011: Head of health and safety (property), Tesco Stores
Jan 2006 - May 2010: Head of health, safety, security and environment, BAA, Stansted Airport
July 2002 - Jan 2006: Director, health and safety, Construction Confederation
Jan 2002 - July 2002: Manager, occupational health, safety and environment (UK and Ireland), Praxis 42
1998 - 2002: Occupational environment, health and safety manager, British Nuclear Fuels
1998 - 1999: Head of construction safety, BNFL Engineering
1993-1998: Inspector, Construction National Interest Group, Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
1993-1997: HM inspector of health and safety, HSE
1980 - 1988: Aircraft fitter/technician, British Aerospace
On the back of years of creditable profitability, Vinci UK posted a loss in 2014. I ask whether and how such a change in the commercial wind affects his work.
“I think it does because, in the daily conversations around what we do to control different areas, there isn’t an absolute standard and it has to be in the context of the health of your business. I’ve had to look critically at the things I ask our business to do and in some areas I’ve lowered the bar or allowed greater flexibility. Without profit we don’t have a business, nobody’s mortgage gets paid, all those people we employ will struggle to make a living.
“I try to share the challenges other leaders in our business face, so I’ve had headcount losses in the central team. I didn’t fight too hard against that. It’s important that we take some of the pain in the business. But that doesn’t mean we drop standards.”
Sometimes, he says, safety and health professionals behave like they have a right to exist apart from the businesses that employ them “and they aren’t prepared to get a bit of skin in the game in the grubby business of balancing profitability and control”.
Pragmatism, he says, is the most important quality he has learned in leadership.
“To go into those conversations with a range of choices and to be able to explain what they are and their risks and benefits immediately puts you in the same mode of operation as most business people instead of being someone you go to for a solid immovable position.”
He says he applies the same standard of pragmatism to his own teams: “I give them a lot of space to go and negotiate a result. I want the best achievable result, not a fixed position.”
What has he had to develop in himself? “I think it’s having the confidence to meet senior managers eye to eye. I’m not lacking confidence as an individual but, if there is something I’m constantly asking myself, it’s ‘Do I do enough face to face with the senior people in the organisation I need to have a strong relationship with?’ Sometimes I think I could be more proactive.
“I’ve got a copy of [legal reference text] Redgrave’s on my desk and a background in the HSE; I could bat for England in terms of knowing the legislation. But that’s not what turns me on. What engages me is the personal challenge, the mixture of the emotional and the intellectual which is getting the right level of authority with a challenging group of people to have an influence. And I’ve had to really work at that.
“I started life as an aircraft fitter so I’ve journeyed from shop floor to board level in a convoluted way. But some of the things I brought from the shop floor have been huge assets to me. I have an insight into what it’s like for the workforce on a construction project.” He notes he has gained a bachelors degree in politics along the way. “But there’s a reticence in talking to people at a senior level that’s embedded because of where I’ve come from. I have to work to overcome that.”
Since he has worked at some of the leading UK employers, from British Nuclear Fuels to BAA (see Career history opposite), before ending up at the worId’s biggest building firm, I ask whether there is anywhere he’d like to go.
“I’m very happy in Vinci,” he says, then reflects a little. He might be tempted, he says, by the challenge of a big organisation that needed a serious safety systems overhaul: “I’d be up for that kind of fight. Whether I’ve got the energy for it, I don’t know.”