Fatigue in construction is the “Phantom Menace”

The construction industry is a major engine of GDP (over 100 billion in economic output) and employs over two million people in the UK. However, it suffers more than many industries in terms of accidents and injury. With more than 43 fatal accidents in 2017 (four times more than the average across all industries) and over 5,000 non-fatal accidents it is no wonder that this industry more than others is regarded as high risk.

Add to this the other 65,000 work related illness (Stress, Depression, Musculoskeletal Disorders, Respiratory and Skin conditions) and it is clear that Health and Safety needs to be embedded at every level of the organisation and especially integrated into the planning process.

Clearly there are unique and challenging circumstances with construction sites; the dynamic and changing environment and the lack of inherent infrastructure all combine to frustrate the best safety plans. What was safe yesterday may not be as safe today. An unoccupied area yesterday may be occupied today. Multiple activities concurrently taking place create varying risk each day.

Add to this “P&P” (Pressure & Penalties) which are now standard in the industry: if tight deadlines are not met there can be seriously damaging financial penalties and so a six or seven-day week and/or long hours for workers is commonplace. Little wonder then that injury rates are so high.

But beyond the hard hats and high vis, what can be done to reduce this blight upon the industry?

The first is the recognition that fatigue is your greatest enemy. Fatigue impairs your ability to process information, slows your reactions and decreases awareness and attention. In short, it reduces your ability to accurately estimate risk. In fact, 20% of major road incidents are the result of fatigue and many of the most publicised accidents (Exxon Valdez, Herald of Free Enterprise, Chernobyl, Clapham Junction, Texas City and Challenger) have been linked to tiredness.

To put it simply in many cases fatigue is a predictor (“lead” indicator) to an accident (“lag” indicator).

The maxim “you can’t prevent what you can’t predict” is very pertinent here. If you can understand the causes and drivers of accidents (fatigue) and you can assess likely fatigue in shifts/patterns, then you can reduce fatigue and prevent the associated outcomes (accidents)

The second is to recognise that long hours/weeks are not the friend of tight deadlines but its nemesis. Accidents create downtime and lost productivity. They CAUSE delays. However, because there is not a 100% correlation between fatigue and accidents, there is a tendency to roll the dice when pressure and deadlines encroach. But you cannot build an enduring business or industry upon this strategy. It is not a replicable/repeatable route to success. You may dodge the bullet more than most but sooner or later it will hit and may create not only contractual or financial strife but also long term reputational damage.

The solution lies with new technology and software that ensures you have the right people in the right place at the right time with the right skills. These planning systems can build in sufficient periods or rest and cover for absence/training and holidays, so you can ensure both and safe and optimum levels of resource to meet deadlines without the need for overtime/extended work periods. The benefit of planning effectively also delivers dividends through reducing fatigue, overtime costs, absence and accidents. Indeed, some solutions already have fatigue factors built into the system to reduce risk and provide assurance.

Another risk factor within construction sites is keeping track of who is on-site and where they are. Again, technology has come a long way with mobile apps which allow supervisors to register staff onsite, fully self-sufficient clocking terminals that are solar/battery powered with 3G for data transit, and beacons/tags that allow the site manager to know exactly who has turned up and exactly where they are in real-time. These solutions are the next generation “high visibility” tools allowing the site manager to know who is where without the need for line of site or audio contact. If there is an situation or emergency, the site manager can instantly view the location and presence of his team and act immediately.

The ability to plan and track workers in real-time does not only reduce accidents but also provides a constant feed-back loop to enable planners to constantly improve their planning based on outcomes. This process is not only critical to ensure health and safety but also though analysis, improve quality, productivity, delivery and reduce downtime, accidents and delay.

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