Improving Occupational Health and Safety
Construction companies are increasingly adopting the quality management systems spelled out by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), such as the ISO 9000 series and the subsequent regulations that have been based on it. Although no recommendations on occupational health and safety are specified in this set of standards, there are cogent reasons for including preventive measures when implementing a management system such as that required by the ISO 9000.
Occupational health and safety regulations are written and implemented and are continuously being adapted to technological progress as well as to new safety techniques and to advances in occupational medicine. All too often, however, they are not followed, either deliberately or out of ignorance. When this occurs, models for safety management, such as the ISO 9000 series, assist in integrating the structure and content of preventive measures into management. The advantages of such a comprehensive approach are obvious.
Integrated management means that occupational health and safety regulations are no longer looked at in isolation, but gain relevance from the corresponding sections of a quality management handbook, as well as in process and work instructions, thus creating a fully integrated system. This integral approach can improve the chances of greater attention to accident prevention measures in daily construction practice and, thereby, reduce the number of workplace accidents and injuries. Dissemination of a handbook that integrates occupational health and safety procedures into the processes it describes is crucial for this process.
New management methods are aimed at putting people closer to the centre of the processes. Co-workers are being more actively involved. Information, communication and cooperation are promoted across hierarchical barriers. The reduction of absences due to illness or workplace accidents enhances the implementation of the principles of quality management in construction.
With the development of new building methods and equipment, safety requirements increase steadily in number. The increasing concern with environmental protection makes the problem even more complex. Coping with the demands of modern prevention is difficult without appropriate regulations and a centrally directed articulation of the process and work instructions. Clear divisions of responsibility and effective coordination for the prevention plan should, therefore, be written into the quality management system.
Documentation of the existence of an occupational safety management system is increasingly required when contractors submit bids for work, and its effectiveness has become one of the criteria for awarding a contract.
The pressure of international competition could become even greater in the future. It seems prudent, therefore, to integrate preventive measures into the quality management system now, rather than waiting and being forced by increasing competitive pressure to do so later, when the pressure of time and the costs of personnel and financing will be much greater. Furthermore, a not inconsiderable benefit of an integrated prevention/quality management system is that having such a well-documented programme in place is likely to reduce the costs of coverage, not only for workers’ compensation, but also for product liability.
Company management must be committed to the integration of occupational health and safety into the management system. Goals specifying the content and time-frame of this effort should be defined and included in the basic statement of company policy. The necessary resources should be made available and appropriate personnel assigned to accomplish the project goals. Specialized safety personnel are generally required in large and mid-sized construction companies. In smaller companies, the employer must take the responsibility for the preventive aspects of the quality management system.
A periodic company management review closes the circle. The collective experiences in utilizing the integrated prevention/ quality management system should be examined and assessed, and plans for revision and for subsequent review should be formulated by company management.
Assessment of results of the occupational safety management system that has been instituted is the second step in the integration of preventive measures and quality management.
The dates, kinds, frequency, causes and costs of accidents should be compiled, analysed and shared with all those in the company with relevant responsibilities. Such an analysis enables the company to set priorities in formulating or modifying process and work instructions. It also makes clear the extent to which occupational health and safety experience affects all divisions and all processes in the construction company. For this reason, defining the interface between company processes and preventive aspects takes on great importance. During bid preparation, the resources in time and money needed for comprehensive preventive measures, such as those incurred in clearing debris, can be precisely calculated.
When purchasing construction materials, attention should be paid to the availability of substitutes for potentially dangerous materials. From the beginning of a project responsibility for occupational health and safety should be assigned for particular aspects and each phase of the construction project. The need and availability for special training in occupational health and safety as well as the relative risks of injury and disease should be compelling considerations in the adoption of particular construction processes. These conditions must be recognized early on so that appropriately qualified workers can be selected and the courses of instruction can be arranged in a timely manner.
The responsibilities and authorities of the personnel assigned to safety and how they fit into the daily work should be documented in writing and collated with the onsite task descriptions. The construction company’s occupational safety staff should appear shown in its organizational chart, which, along with a clear responsibility matrix and schematic flow-charts of processes, should appear in the quality management handbook.
An Example from Germany
In practice, there are four formal procedures and their combinations for integrating occupational health and safety into a quality management system that have been implemented in Germany:
- A quality management handbook and a separate occupational safety management handbook are developed. Each has its own procedures and work instructions. In extreme cases, this creates ineffective, insular organizational solutions, which require twice the amount of work and in practice do not accomplish the desired results.
- An additional section is inserted into the quality management handbook with the heading “Occupational health and safety”. All statements on occupational health and safety are organized in this section. This path is chosen by some construction companies. Positioning a health and safety problem in a separate section may well highlight the importance of prevention, but it entails the risk being ignored as a “fifth wheel” and serves more as an evidence of intent rather than a command for appropriate action.
- All aspects of occupational health and safety are worked directly into the quality management system. This is the most systematic implementation of the basic idea of integration. The integrated and flexible structuring of the presentation models of the German DIN EN ISO 9001-9003 permits such an inclusion.
- The Underground Construction Trade Organization (Berufs-genossenschaft) favours a modular integration. This concept is explained below.
Integration in Quality Management
Once the assessment is completed, at the latest, those responsible for the construction project should contact the quality management officers and decide on the steps for actually integrating occupational safety into the management system. Comprehensive preparatory work should facilitate setting common priorities during the work that promise the greatest preventive results.
The demands of prevention that come out of the assessment are first divided into those that can be categorized according to the processes specific to the company and those that should be considered separately since they are more widespread, more comprehensive or of such a special character that they demand separate consideration. The following question can be of assistance in this categorization: Where would the interested reader of the handbook (e.g., the “customer” or the worker) most likely look for the relevant preventive policy, the section of a chapter devoted to a process specific to the company, or in a special section on occupational health and safety? Thus, it appears, a specialized procedural instruction on transporting hazardous materials would make the most sense in almost all construction companies if it were included in section on handling, storing, packing, conserving and shipping.
Coordination and Implementation
After this formal categorization should come linguistic coordination to ensure easy readability (this means presentation in the appropriate language(s) and in terms easily understood by individuals with educational levels characteristic of the particular workforce). Finally, the final documents must be formally endorsed by the top management of the company. At this juncture, it would be useful to publicize the significance of the changed or newly-implemented procedures and work instructions in company bulletins, safety circles, memos and any other available media, and to promote their application.
To assess the effectiveness of the instructions, appropriate questions may be prepared for inclusion into general audits. In this manner, the coherence of work processes and occupational health and safety considerations is made unmistakably clear to the worker. Experience has shown that workers may at first be surprised when an audit team on the construction site in their particular division routinely asks questions on accident prevention as a matter of course. The consequent increase in the attention paid to safety and health by the workforce confirms the value of the integration of prevention into the quality management programme.