Site safety: where to set the bar?

(Posted by Laurence)

I’ve had at least one request for some more ‘technical content’, and that’s all the excuse I need to start waxing eloquent on engineering minutiae (thanks Rob R)! However, I’m reluctant to write without good accompanying photos, so for now I’ll just share some thoughts on that dreaded topic… health and safety.  I wonder if it could be called the elephant-on-the-construction-site? There’s an Africa-related pun there somewhere…

Cotton rugby shorts: protective clothing?

My experience with the Army has given me a pretty robust (or should I say risky?) approach to H&S. Soldiers just want to get the job done, and be comfortable while doing it, so I have no shame in admitting that I often let H&S standards on my watch drop below what would be expected by the Health and Safety Executive.  We’re the Army, right, we don’t have to comply with those civilian regulations? Combine with this years of watching my father build a house, wielding chainsaws and angle grinders in nothing but a pair of rugby shorts… and you might wonder if I should be barred from managing construction sites!

That said, I would maintain that I have generally taken a realistic and sensible approach, both on my own DIY projects and with the Army: if a piece of Personal Protective Equipment is inhibiting movement to the extent that an accident is more likely then I would rather be without it, but there is also time when managers must set minimum standards of dress (however unpopular) and I would like to think I have struck the balance well.

Health and safety in Uganda: my observations

No need for plugs

Innovative, but dangerous.

I was expecting some ‘dodgy practices’, and Uganda has not disappointed! As a small example: plugs seem to be a thing of luxury here, and definitely aren’t seen as a necessity (see photo, right). I am cautious about taking photos and crowing over dangerous practices though because, (1) it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and (2) as my line manager in the CM team pointed out, some labourers here just don’t have the education and training (formal or otherwise) that I have that makes me aware of dangers in the workplace.  For example, I had an interesting conversation with one of our main carpenters today about the merits of using 110v power supply on site – standard practice in the UK for safety reasons. It turns out he often does use 110v (he has his own transformer), and for good reason: he says the tools last longer, but the safety aspect didn’t seem to occur to, or concern, him. Elsewhere, I have already come across tradesmen who have politely taken the goggles or dust mask I have offered them, only to revert within minutes to half-closed eyes and a scarf over the mouth – and who can blame them, when goggles fog up and dust masks don’t fit properly?

Everything I’ve seen you could probably find happening somewhere in the UK.  I believe that cutting corners and taking risks is a characteristic of low-paid construction workers worldwide; it is just kept in check in the UK by stricter regulations and the threat of legal action against site managers.

What can we, and should we, do?

In no way do I want to set myself up as some kind of Health and Safety Executive official for Uganda, but neither do I want workers getting injured (or worse, killed) on my watch. Education must be the key, so that change happens because people understand the risks, not because they are threatened with rules and regulations.  EMI could decide not to employ any contractors or labourers who don’t abide by our standard of safety, but that wouldn’t be helping to effect a change of attitudes here. One of EMI’s core values is discipleship, and that’s not just in the faith arena, it applies just as much to professional knowledge and skills.

First aid training

My fellow CM project manager, Matt, regaling our labourers with a story of a fractured hand during our first aid training.

The first step to a better understanding of hazards on site is to link them to the dangers they represent to workers, and so last week the EMI Construction Management team ran a basic first aid training session on one of our construction sites. We weren’t aiming to produce perfectly proficient first-aiders in one sitting, but we hoped to teach some basics such as how to deal with a serious bleed, while also discussing the importance of basic site safety. I was surprised by how readily many of the workers engaged with the session (helped by some international site banter), and the presence of an interpreter did nothing to break the flow of our explanations!

Back at the ranch (i.e. the EMI workshop), I am re-wiring several power tools that have had some extremely dodgy repairs on their cables; while doing this I am trying to involve Henry, a Ugandan lad in his early twenties who is helping out in the workshop, in the hope that he will start to see that opening up and re-wiring a drill is straightforward, and preferable to just sticking some electrical tape over any bare wires.

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3 thoughts on “Site safety: where to set the bar?

  1. Laurence,
    Having spent many years living in developing countries, albeit working in an office environment, I empathise. I recall with a shudder a team of labourers having to re-position a safe in my office. They were manhandling the safe, which must have weighed the best part of a ton, using crowbars and … all in bare feet – not a steel-toecapped boot in sight.

    Nick

    Like

  2. Pingback: D is for Discipleship | The Knoops

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