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Safety 'at heart' of industry
Published on Friday, 19 Nov 2010
Computer images simulate a 3D platform for architects and engineers.
All K Wah employees pledge to improve health and safety practices.

It's difficult for anyone walking around Hong Kong to be unaware of the vast amount of public and private construction projects under way in the city.

Besides bringing improvements to the infrastructure and returns for investors, these major works are also providing a huge number of jobs for construction workers. 

Along with that growth in employee numbers comes an increased workload for those in the industry specifically responsible for health, safety and environment (HSE) issues.

However, according to some of the biggest players in the sector, safety isn't a burden on their business - it is at the heart of what they do. "We see [HSE] as fundamental to a successful business. Good HSE is good business," says Nick Lewis, business development, engineering and HSE director with K Wah Construction Materials, a leading supplier of materials such as aggregates, concrete and asphalt.

For Gammon Construction, the industry giant building tunnels and stations for the MTR West Island Line, among other projects, safety, integrity and excellence form the company's three declared core values.

Yu Sai-yen, Gammon's executive director in Hong Kong, says that from next year, the government hopes to reduce

the upper limit on the accident frequency rate from 0.75 to 0.6 reportable accidents per 100,000 man-hours.

"This is the target for all the contractors," Yu says. "That gives you some sort of idea that the industry has been doing better and better."

According to the professionals, key factors behind this improvement have been changes in the attitudes and behaviour of workers, and the increased use of technological and design solutions to tackle safety issues.

"The biggest challenge has been changing the mindset of the workers," Yu says. "Overconfidence led some to ignore procedures, while others were reluctant to change practices they were used to."

According to Lewis, K Wah's internal safety culture is evolving from one where employees think it is the boss's responsibility to look out for their health and safety to one where they take ownership themselves.

To this end, all the company's employees, right up to the managing director, sign up to a personal health and safety charter that clearly defines the responsibilities of the company and the employees. "This not only involves taking care of their own safety management, but [also] each and every one of their colleagues," Lewis explains.

The charter is supported by a no-blame culture for the reporting of incidents and near misses, which aims to proactively cure problems before they arise, rather than point fingers afterwards.

Gammon uses a four-tier "safety management process" that also attempts to change working practices. But at its highest levels the process aims to engineer safety problems out of the system, and ensure that plant and material chosen for projects reduce risks.

Similarly, K Wah targets problems at the source. An integrated approach is being employed in dealing with airborne dust, which combines the use of advanced hardware with good operating practices.

Both companies say that employees' personal protective equipment is the last line of defence.

Solutions are also being found to cope with the perennial problem of the safety performances of subcontractors who, according to K Wah, visit the company's sites infrequently and may not have specific industry experience.

During their tendering process, K Wah now looks at not only the price of the subcontractor's quote and their track-record in safety, but also their workers' competencies, degree of supervisory control and management systems.

To work with Gammon, subcontractors have to go back to school. "They must attend a half-day's training at Gammon's Zero Harm Induction Centre," Yu says.

Thirty-five thousand subcontractors have been through a process covering the five main risk areas: working at heights, falling objects, electrical equipment, moving plant and equipment and water.

Gammon has set itself the overall goal of reducing its accident frequency rate to below 0.1 per 100,000 man-hours by 2012.

Within this, Yu says, the aim is to achieve "zero fatalities, zero permanent disabling injuries, zero incidents of long-term harm to health, and zero injuries to members of the public."