Every May, the Chilean Chamber of Construction holds a Construction Week. The week is an important point in the annual calendar of a very significant sector in the country.
The Chamber owns a major portfolio of buildings, has established a Safety Mutual that through an insurance scheme provides medical care to Chilean construction workers and many others in the hospitals it runs, together with prevention work driven by the occupational hygienists it employs. The Chamber also backs all of its efforts with safety campaigns and strategies in partnership with the trades unions and the government.
During the week, the President of Chile attended a breakfast when awards were made in the middle of the conferencing and networking and we had a detailed discussion with the ministerial under-secretary responsible for health and safety.
I was invited to speak about the initiatives taken by the UK construction industry for the London 2012 build, taken subsequently by major projects, and working collectively across the sector.
There were two aspects of my visit that stand out, even more than the hospitality of my hosts: the way the key risks in construction and the ways of managing them more effectively is increasingly something that is common around the world, even if it always has a local flavour.
The second aspect standing out was the appetite, wherever you go, for searching for ideas, practices and evidence that will lead to better practice, more effective risk control and fewer people injured or made ill by their work.
In Chilean construction, the common causes of fatal accidents are people coming into contact with mobile plant and vehicles, falls from height and live electrical supplies; the top 10 is a familiar list to anyone working in the industry anywhere in the world.
When exceptions arise, such as in the current work for the Qatar FIFA World Cup, it usually means that conditions beyond the normal working environment – in that case inadequate employer-provided accommodation and inadequate protection in extreme climatic conditions – have not been sufficiently resourced, while the various parties refuse to accept their responsibility.
In Chile, a robust regulatory regime - plus leading construction companies seeking to achieve world-class standards to problems familiar around the world - means there is a real opportunity to transfer knowledge and enable the improvements required.
There was real interest in the way in which London 2012 focused on immediate, front-line leadership provided by supervisors, who were trusted, respected and supported to translate the commitments of senior management and directors into day-to-day instructions, teamwork and direct control. In the build, it was the supervisors who were recognised as the key link between overall leadership and the site workers, and this represents an opportunity wherever construction work is being undertaken and would benefit from better risk management.
But the Chilean desire to learn from best practice has also taken the industry to Singapore, with its dynamic accident-prevention programmes, to Ireland with its initiative to reduce fatalities, and now to Mates in Mind, to weave mental health and wellbeing into their comprehensive health programme.
From our side, we can learn a lot from the way in which their whole industry has developed medical and hygiene expertise that is helping to prevent exposure to the risks to health and also offer specialised treatment and rehabilitation to injured construction workers.
Challenges are similar globally, and we can learn from each other to move the industry, and health and safety, forward into a safer and healthier future, just as construction itself develops the country and so contributes to the same for the whole population.
Lawrence Waterman OBE is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the British Safety Council.
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