Preventing “accidents” in construction

June 12th, 2014, Published in Articles: Vector


The recent Tongaat Mall collapse led to a media frenzy, only to fizzle out over time. The Department of Labour is investigating the “accident” and the question now is, “what will the findings be?”

Fatalities, injuries, disease, and inadequate health and safety (H&S) measures, including non-compliance, will continue to occur until the South African construction industry undergoes some essential changes.

“Management failure” or “accident”?

There is no such thing as an “accident”! Traditional definitions include, among others “an unplanned event”. Are “accidents” unplanned? Absolutely not! Any review will indicate that they are meticulously planned by default, i.e. through actions and or omissions. Consequently, given that the five functions of management work are planning, organising, leading, controlling, and co-ordinating, then unplanned events such as “accidents” amount to “failure of management” (reality).

This is effectively a philosophy and constitutes a state of mind. However, the term “management” must not be construed to apply solely to contractors, as there is a management echelon in all built environment stakeholder organisations, including the client, project manager, designer and quantity surveyor.

Construction is not inherently dangerous

The myth that construction is inherently dangerous or that accidents are “part of the job” implies that there is nothing that can be done to mitigate hazards and risk. This is not the case as strategies, systems, procedures, and protocol can mitigate or even eliminate hazards and risk.

Risk management

There are numerous risks in construction. However, the built environment is not renowned for risk management. This lack of aversion to risk does not complement health and safety in construction. Project managers, principal agents and construction managers should adopt a formal risk management process and quantify the risks, rank, and evolve appropriate responses where required, as is the case with H&S hazards and risks.

Respect for people

Respect for people is the catalyst for the value, “people are our most important resource”. However, poor welfare facilities on site, among others, are not a manifestation of respect for people. This value is critical as it is the catalyst for an H&S culture. We must bear in mind that supervisors and workers who are exposed to hazards and risk are people with bodies, minds, and souls. They invariably have partners and families and are derived from communities. In essence, such a value is the foundation for H&S and sustainability of an organisation.

Optimum H&S culture

The catalyst for an H&S culture is the value, “people are our most important resource”. Such a value will engender a vision of a fatality, injury, and disease-free work place. Such a vision requires a complementary goal of zero deviations. To realise this requires continual improvement – the mission. A higher-level purpose is necessary for an optimum H&S culture, sustainability of the organisation and, for that matter, sustainability of the industry. The reason is that there must be a rationale for H&S endeavours when fatalities, injuries and disease no longer occur. In effect, H&S is a means to the end, not the end in itself.

H&S a value, not a priority

The passé paradigm of cost, quality, and time is a critical mindset yet to be disposed of. Continued citing of the traditional three-project performance parameters as the set of criteria by which projects’ success is measured marginalises H&S and confirms ignorance with respect to the synergistic role which H&S plays in overall project performance. This also marginalises H&S culture and reflects a lack of respect for people.

H&S is often referred to as a priority. Given that priorities may change on a daily basis, H&S should be a value, i.e. it must always be the first consideration and all activities must be structured around it.


Planning is a hallmark of the built environment and relevant to all built environment disciplines. In terms of construction, the maxim, “construction is 80% planning and 20% execution” is an understatement. H&S does not happen by chance, it must be planned.

There are, however, many facets to planning for construction H&S. Totality of design facilitates construction planning for H&S. Design hazard identification and risk assessments (HIRAs), a form of planning, are required to mitigate the use of hazardous materials and the undertaking of hazardous processes.

Such HIRAs are a prerequisite for preparing H&S specifications, which should include residual hazards and risks, i.e. those hazards and risks remaining after the HIRAs are conducted. Designers may also need to prepare design and construction method statements which inform, among others, with respect to temporary works and related interventions to assure the integrity of temporary works and structures.

Clients’ requirements, another form of planning, should also be included in such H&S specifications. Contractors’ H&S plans should respond to these H&S specifications and this response should reflect in the tender documentation in the form of budgeting. However, adequate financial and other resource budgeting is not facilitated by the competitive tendering system, the obvious solution being the inclusion of comprehensive H&S preliminaries.

Construction planning for H&S commences during the pre-tender stage, followed by the pre-contract stage, which provides the foundation for construction stage planning for construction H&S.

Pre-tender and pre-contract HIRAs, programmes, site layouts, generic method statements and temporary works designs are obvious focus areas in terms of integrating construction H&S into the future construction process. Following adjustments during the pre-contract phase, these must translate into daily actions such as HIRAs, focused planning of construction activities, and co-ordination.

The six stages of projects and H&S

Construction H&S has historically been viewed as the contractor’s problem. However, a brief review indicates the influence of all project stakeholders on construction H&S during the six stages of projects: project initiation and briefing; concept and feasibility; design development; tender documentation and procurement; construction documentation and management and project close out.

A brief upon initiation which includes a planned 100-storey office block presents challenges and opportunities in terms of H&S. Given that it is likely to entail a structural steel frame, the challenge of extensive work at elevated heights arises. However, the opportunity exists to drop AC ducting and cable tray suspension rods (hangars) through holes drilled in the corrugated decking which is to receive a concrete overlay, i.e. a permanent formwork to the slabs. This mitigates having to drill holes in the soffit of reinforced concrete slabs in the case of reinforced concrete-framed structures to insert anchors to receive such rods.

Natural stone cladding panels have implications for construction H&S during their attachment to the frame. The specification of materials that contain hazardous chemical substances during design development and, for that matter, tender documentation and procurement, has implications for construction H&S. The extent to which construction H&S is included as a criterion for selection of contractors and budgeting for H&S is facilitated, has obvious implications for construction H&S.

The linkage between the management of the physical construction process and its related activities and construction H&S is obvious. Project close-out includes activities such as the handing over of the H&S file including as-built and as-laid drawings, the latter including the as-laid position of electrical cables and gas lines.

Sound construction management

Management skills and their application are a pre-requisite for optimum H&S. The five functions of management work, namely planning, organising, leading, controlling and co-ordinating are necessary to develop objectives, strategies, systems, procedures and protocol.

Management and integration of project resources are also a prerequisite for H&S. These include management; supervision; labour; surface and core competencies; information; technology; innovation; subcontractors; plant and equipment, and materials.

One of the many challenges in terms of construction H&S are the limited barriers to entry. The establishment of construction management programmes at traditional universities in the 1960s and 1970s was the result of an identified need for them. Such programmes focus on three streams, namely economics, management, and science and technology, all of which are required to manage the business of construction and projects, construction H&S included. An example includes “structures” which empowers graduates to design temporary works such as support work and formwork, and scaffolding.

Tertiary built environment education

Given the impact of the six stages on and the role of all built environment stakeholders in construction H&S, a prerequisite for optimum H&S is the inclusion of H&S in the tertiary education of all built environment disciplines. The reason for this is that education is a pre-requisite for awareness, sensitisation, commitment and the development of an optimum H&S culture, as well as the required competencies to contribute to construction H&S, as opposed to marginalising it.

The reality, however, is that tertiary built environment education addresses construction H&S to a limited extent, if at all, the exception being of construction management programmes which address construction H&S to varying degrees.

Sound core and surface competencies

We frequently refer to competency and, specifically, the competent person, within legislation, regulations, and standards. The draft 2013 South African Construction Regulations make reference to knowledge, training and experience and, where applicable, to qualifications specific to the work or task.

However, Sanghi (2004) suggests that competencies are divided into two categories: surface competencies, which should at least be effective, and core competencies, which distinguish superior performance from average performance.

The surface competencies are:

  • Knowledge: information regarding content.
  • Skills: ability to perform a task.

The core competencies are:

  • Self-concept: values, aptitude, attitude, and self-image.
  • Traits: self-confidence, team player, deals with ambiguity.
  • Motives: focuses on client success and preserves organisation/personal integrity.

While surface competences are important, the core competencies are invariably critical in a dynamic environment such as construction. Examples include values, aptitude, ability to handle ambiguity, and the preservation of integrity.

Integration of design and construction

There are two issues in terms of the integration of design and construction, namely the influence of design on construction H&S, and the type of procurement system.

Design influences construction directly and indirectly. Directly, through design, choice of structural frame, details, method of fixing, constructability and specification of materials and finishes. It influences construction indirectly, through choice of procurement system and conditions of contract, procurement, decision regarding project duration, and reference to H&S on various occasions.

Certain procurement systems such as design-build promote the integration of design and construction. Optimum integration engenders and enhances H&S as it facilitates contractor contributions to the design process. Furthermore, designing for H&S is one of 16 design-for-constructability principles – contractors can contribute substantially to designing for constructability.

Quality management systems

Phil Crosby (1979) presents the four absolutes of quality as:

  • Definition: Conformance to requirements.
  • Performance standard: Zero defects.
  • System: Prevention, and measurement – price of non-conformance.

These absolutes apply unequivocally to H&S. Firstly, there are numerous H&S requirements contained in, among others, legislation, standards and H&S specifications which must be conformed with. Secondly, the obvious performance standard relative to H&S is zero accidents.

It is, however, the deviations that create the opportunity for incidents, the outcomes of which are fortuitous, either minor, moderate, major, or catastrophic. Thirdly, the system is certainly prevention as opposed to appraisal or inspection.

Although inspections play a role in H&S and quality, unlike in the case of brickwork which can be demolished and re-built, once an arm is severed it is severed!

Fourthly, in terms of measurement, the cost of accidents (CoA) is ideal as all stakeholders can relate to it and as it can be expressed as a percentage of the cost or value of a project or as the value of completed construction on a macro scale.

In South Africa, this was estimated to be between 4,3 and 5,4% of the value of completed construction, whereas the cost of implementing H&S is estimated to be between 0,5 and 3% of project costs.

Furthermore, a documented quality management system (QMS) complements H&S as it documents the systems, procedures and protocol required relative to the design, procurement, and construction processes. Adopting a formal standard approach to activities assures an optimum outcome and prevents issues being overlooked.

Health and safety management systems

The elements of a health and safety management (H&SM) system provide the framework for the management of H&S, namely policy; planning; implementation and operation; checking and corrective action and management review. However, given the relationship between quality and H&S, the use of a documented QMS or an integrated management system will complement H&S as it will require the following of procedures relative to erecting and striking of support work and formwork, for example.

H&S is a profit centre

Given that the CoA is estimated to be between 4,3 and 5,4% of the value of completed construction whereas the cost of implementing H&S is estimated to be between 0,5 and 3% of project costs, H&S is clearly a profit centre.

However, the synergy between construction H&S and the other eleven project parameters results in further financial benefits: environment; cost; developmental criteria; productivity; public H&S; quality; time; client satisfaction; design team satisfaction, and worker satisfaction.


There is an unhealthy “culture” of a lack of respect for people; a focus on cost, quality and time; complacency and of “H&S costs money”, among others.

Prerequisites for the realisation of optimum status for H&S are respect for people; values; H&S culture, and competence which in turn requires comprehensive tertiary built environment education addressing construction H&S. These, in tandem with a focus on risk management, planning and integrated multi-stakeholder contributions throughout the six stages of the project, appropriate procurement underpinned by quality and H&S management systems and sound management, will realise optimum H&S.

A paradigm shift is needed in terms of how construction H&S is viewed and promoted. Legislation constitutes a template but the views that “people are our most important resource” and “H&S is a profit centre” represent rallying points. The Council for the Built Environment must act.

Built environment tertiary education must address construction H&S in the form of the strategies, systems, and interventions related to the respective disciplines, which must be reviewed during accreditation visits by the respective councils. This is still an issue despite the promulgation of the Construction Regulations on
18 July 2003.

The current inadequacies in terms of built environment practitioners’ H&S competencies must be addressed through continuing professional development.


[1] P Crosby: Quality is free, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
[2] DJ Schwartz: The magic of thinking big, Pocket Books, 1995.
[3] S Sanghi: The handbook of competency mapping, New Delhi, Response Books, 2004.
[4] JJ Smallwood: “Optimum cost: the role of health and safety”, proceedings International Cost Engineering Council fourth World Congress, Cape Town, 2004
[5] JJ Smallwood: “The practice of construction management”, Acta Structilia, 2006.

Contact Mariana Jacobs, ICMEESA, Tel 011 615-4304,

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