More than 2,000 workers have been killed in the last 25 years on construction sites or as a result of construction activities in the UK alone. Many more have been injured or made ill. Clearly, these are not figures to be taken lightly. The importance of safety in construction is fundamental and the only acceptable means of action has to be to the goal of zero accidents. This unit discusses the steps to be taken, including drawing on valuable lessons from the US and Japan.

Learning objectives

  1. Explain why zero accidents is the only practically and ethically acceptable goal.
  2. Describe the spin-off benefits that improved safety management can bring.
  3. Appreciate the link between safety and quality.
  4. Summarise the lessons that other construction sectors can learn from the Japanese.
  5. Identify recent initiatives in the UK and US that incorporate measures for maximising safety.
  6. Itemise the ways in which the construction workforce can be motivated to achieve the goal of zero accidents.
  7. Suggest means for achieving the target of zero accidents.


Construction has always had a reputation for claiming the lives of its workforce. For example, UK construction claims lives at the rate of around 100 workers every year. The risk of death or injury is often seen as an occupational hazard. While industry generally has cleaned up its act, construction perpetuates life-threatening work practices. Modified behaviour and practices that would safeguard the workforce are often ignored. Long-standing customs, a culture of indifference that pervades the construction sector, and pressure to reduce costs, are partly to blame. Whatever the reasons, accidents need not and should not be accepted as inevitable. The goal of zero accidents is a real and rewarding outcome for everyone associated with a construction project.

This unit explores improved ways of working, in addition to safety-related benefits. Best practice safety management is likely to bring spin-off benefits in areas such as quality, cost and time. It is useful, therefore, to think about a focus on zero accidents as the central principle in bringing about a better way of organising and managing work. Indeed, a concern for safety is a concern for the success of a project in overall terms. The western approach to safety in construction is then described, with particular reference to the UK sector and US initiatives. The Japanese construction sector is then considered, noting the great improvements in accident statistics in recent years and identifying the key points of Japanese practice from which the improvements have stemmed. Finally, the means of achieving zero accidents are reviewed.

Project success factors

If the ultimate objective is project success, and if this is measured in terms of best value for money, customer satisfaction or some other tangible outcome, it is possible to construct a set of goals, targets or benchmarks for the project team. Although there may be many of them, they all share a similar aim - getting to zero. The most pertinent for the purpose of this article are:

  • zero defects;
  • zero cost overruns;
  • zero delays; and
  • zero accidents.

Each of these zero targets is implicitly linked to a critical success factor and key performance indicator(s). In other words, zero defects sets the (ultimate) benchmark, the basis for measuring variability in performance, the indicator of customer satisfaction with the end product, and, most importantly, focuses the project team's effort on a delivery process that strives for best practice. Similarly, zero accidents will bring about a culture where risks are properly assessed and managed, where contractors no longer pay lip service to the observance of health and safety requirements, and where workers themselves recognise that a safe site is the only place to work.

Engineering the consequences of a design

Developing this argument, the achievement, or genuine pursuit, of zero can come about only by a process that is characteristically different to that practised today. The stimulus for achieving zero in all aspects of a project's performance and for a re-engineered process would have to combine the ideals of modern management thinking and practice with the pragmatism that comes from zero goals. The construction sector cannot afford to evolve by increments to arrive at zero. It will take too much time and involve too many more deaths and injuries; neither can the sector look at tools and techniques that address or attack just part of the problem. A holistic approach is needed.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw a growth in techniques and tools for management to improve performance and increase profitability. These new tools and techniques facilitated performance improvement and were therefore able to offer an incentive for the drive towards zero accidents and related targets. However, despite the potential attraction of these tools and techniques, none was able to encapsulate all the attributes which would help bring about a new culture and methods of working for ensuring quality, economic, timely and safe construction. It is possible that elements or aspects of each might contribute to these objectives, but such a piecemeal approach would not guarantee success. Moreover, each tool or technique is aligned to a specific objective: business process re-engineering (BPR) is about redesigning business processes to focus on those aspects that provide competitive advantage for the organisation; benchmarking is a tool for comparing performance; and risk assessment looks at the hazards and other circumstances of a project or undertaking that are potentially detrimental to life. Since none is aligned to project success in all its manifestations, the need for a new method and culture that would achieve this totality is required.

Clients ultimately want best value for money and to derive satisfaction from what they receive. However, this cannot be achieved if the human infrastructure is corrupted by practices that accept or tolerate accidents or if there are no tools with which to put honest efforts into action. Moreover, the absence of goals or targets means there is nothing to aim for in any programme of improvement, or a basis for measuring progress towards zero. Bringing these issues to the fore helps overcome the common complaint of not knowing how to go about improvement.

Safety in construction: the western paradigm

The construction sector has traditionally employed casual and unskilled labour, with an estimated two or three unskilled workers in support of every specialist tradesman or craftsman. This is defensible, as the sector has demanded fewer skills than has any other, with the possible exception of agriculture. Consequently, the standard of education and training of site workers has generally been low. Implicit in this tradition is the perceived poor quality of the end-product, as much as of the process itself. Although the total quality management approach now takes all aspects of a project into account, including health and safety, in order to provide the desired end-product, the push for higher quality has not brought with it improved safety. The development of quality management has not been matched by a reduction in the number of accidents on construction sites.

Accidents on construction sites are regarded as a normal, if regrettable, feature of work. Yet, no one could seriously suggest that injuries or death are an acceptable part of working life. In reality, the only acceptable statistic is zero accidents - to aim for anything else is to tolerate practice and behaviour that will lead to injuries and deaths. Managers in the west have been preoccupied with reducing accidents to an unspecified minimum, believing that it will never be possible to eliminate them. Due to the fact that relevant statistics are not collected the true costs of accidents are seldom known. Even with the best insurance available to the workforce, the actual cost of accidents is eleven times the insured cost. Striving for zero accidents can therefore provide immediate rewards for construction companies. However, companies must first convince their workforce that management is committed to zero accidents.

The concerted efforts of member companies of the US Construction Industry Institute have shown that the concept of a zero accident culture is realistic. Moreover, it is the only defensible long-term goal. As far back as the mid-1980s, they agreed to take steps that would reduce their accident rate to a quarter of the national average by the turn of the century using the target of zero accidents. They managed to achieve their goal within five years. The basis of their success can be seen as setting goals high and then working to exceed them. It is important in this respect to have workable techniques through which to achieve goals or targets. Results from the CII initiative show clearly that a significant reduction in the number of fatalities and accidents is possible. Furthermore, the initiative has demonstrated tangible gains.

In the UK, health and safety awareness on site has improved over the years. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM) have forced the sector to realise the importance of good health and safety practices. Most organisations now have someone in charge of safety at board level. The UK construction sector has both the legal and organisational framework within which it can begin to make significant reductions in the number of accidents. Yet, what must be looked for now is a shift in the way accidents are regarded in the sector and zero tolerance of accidents, otherwise the frameworks themselves are worthless.

Research into safety management in the UK has shown that working safely must also be seen in terms of saving both lives and money. As would be expected after the introduction of CDM regulations, most UK organisations have a health and safety policy in place. Client organisations are more inclined to set explicit targets for reducing the number of accidents, providing a benchmark against which all monitored activities can be measured. However, the reporting of accidents may not always be full and accurate. Reasons for failure to report include fear of retribution or a wish not to adversely affect company statistics. The latter may nevertheless be massaged to create a false impression of safety standards. Monetary incentives and a work atmosphere in which everybody is free to report an accident without fear of penalties have been suggested as means of encouraging the reporting of accidents.

Training for all construction workers is seen as essential and health and safety training is now increasingly being provided to everyone, although there is room for improved provision. Generally, the better trained the workforce, in terms of specialist skills and health and safety training, the less susceptible it is to accidents. Companies normally require all site managers and supervisory staff to receive training in health and safety. In many cases, a licence-to-work system, where all staff and workers are given the right training for the job they are being asked to do, has been introduced. Knowledge is imparted to unskilled workers by means of tool box talks. These workers are the most vulnerable members of the construction workforce and their training is essential if the safety system is to work. Attendance at talks is monitored. Most are informal and the presenters range from site safety managers to the workers themselves. However, site managers do not always take them seriously; neither are the talks always appropriate to the type of work labourers are engaged in at the time.

Health and safety in the UK appears to be viewed differently by clients and construction companies. Many share the view that improvement is possible, but also that it is often someone else's job to make it happen. Construction companies are willing to promote safety as long as the client is prepared to pay for it. On the other hand, client organisations have emphasised that, when properly planned, safety should not cost anything. The returns on investment in health and safety can easily cover and justify the expenditure through:

  • increased quality of output as the workforce becomes more health and safety conscious; and
  • repeat contracts as clients learn of the good accident record of the company.

Most client organisations use health and safety as one of the criteria for the selection of contractors. Client organisations can also bring their health and safety experiences to the sites that they supervise. There is general agreement that the construction sector can learn from other industrial sectors that have more advanced health and safety systems.

Many construction companies are willing to change but do not know how. It also seems that medium-size construction companies are keener to change than large or small companies. Logically, better health and safety on a site should lead to better productivity because there is no loss of time. This leads to better workmanship because workers are alert and working in a less stressful environment. However, this is difficult to quantify and to compare between sites, as conditions can vary greatly. Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that workmanship and productivity are better on those sites where healthy and safe practices have been enforced.

It is clear that the UK construction sector has some distance to travel before construction is able to demonstrate the same commitment to safety as other industrial sectors. Incentive schemes can help to raise standards and reduce accidents, but they cannot be a complete answer. The culture has to change radically.

Safety in construction: the Japanese approach

Like so many aspects of construction activity, it is impractical to look at one problem in isolation from all others. Often, the cause and its remedy are conditional upon some other, related factors. Safety is a dimension of quality and a real concern for quality must therefore embrace issues of safety.

A commitment to total quality is something that Japanese industry in general has accepted and exploited to considerable effect. The success of Japan throughout the 1970s and 1980s as they dominated some international markets has been attributed to this ideal and is embodied in the principle and practice of kaizen. Seeking continuous improvement requires a focus on quality and Japanese industry understands this well. Quality and safety are linked inextricably, no more so than in manufacturing; it is therefore hard to isolate one from the other. While this is also true for construction, it is less marked. The nature of construction activity is such that the factors typical of mass or lean production, for instance repetition, standardisation, design for production and JIT, are largely absent. It is therefore apparent that safety in construction has to receive special treatment if it is to be taken seriously.

Safety in the workplace has long been a concern for Japanese industry. Even so, a large number of accidents do occur, partly because Japan has been so highly industrialised. Modern industry is about achieving quality standards at a level that the customer demands and that traditional industry practices could not match. Workers have to perform in a way that enables them to produce to consistently high quality. Where the quality performance of the finished good is lower, workers may produce an acceptable result through work practices that are not especially safe or productive in the long term.

Japan's safety record

In the early 1970s, Japan's general industrial accident rate was appalling. Yet, in subsequent years, the number of injuries and fatalities dropped dramatically. Most of the reduction is attributable to stiff legislation that has made construction companies - in particular a site's project manager - responsible for safety. Construction safety law has been revised many times in the intervening years and is regarded by site personnel as very powerful. Managers work in the knowledge that the consequences of neglect will be severely punished. Furthermore, there is both a social stigma and a financial penalty attached to a negligent act. Even where cause or blame cannot be attributed to a failing on the part of the construction company (and its managers), the consequences can be damaging. Public sector bodies will certainly blacklist any company that has a poor accident record, even if it is not to blame.

Site safety management

The familiar vision of Japanese workers demonstrating obedience to the company through early morning exercises has reinforced prejudice against a society, a culture and a workforce that appears alien to western standards and drawn attention away from the other matters that accompany this brief daily routine.

In the west, morning exercises, briefings and safety patrols can be viewed as unnecessary, wasteful of resources and bound to increase programme time and cost. These practices are viewed as peculiarly Japanese with little place outside Japan. It is true that there may be many cultural differences, but undertaking a skilled job in Yokohama or York is essentially the same. The big difference lies in the motivation and control over the workforce.

Japanese construction sites display a profound concern for safe working. The regime is such that sloppy work habits are simply not tolerated: there is too much to lose. Sites are closely supervised and tightly controlled and site management practices may appear to western eyes to be regimented. However, roles, responsibilities and procedures are unambiguous and leave little room for misinterpretation by individuals.

In terms of overall responsibility for issues of safety, the roles of project manager and safety manager are generally combined. Larger sites will, however, necessitate the appointment of a full-time safety manager. Ordinarily, health and safety issues are not separated from the project management function: to do the job at all is to do it safely.

Unlike the UK position under the CDM Regulations, Japanese construction clients and designers are not held responsible for the actions of the constructor/contractor with regard to health and safety. Responsibility rests solely with the main or general contractor who has traditionally, at least in the case of the larger firms, taken greater control of design. Construction companies will not, like their western counterparts, take a designer's drawings and build to them. Working drawings in Japan mean just that, with the construction company normally taking outline or scheme designs and producing its own set of detailed working drawings. These show not only what materials and components go where, but also how they are to be put together. Designing to facilitate the incorporation of safe work practices is, thus, a natural part of the construction process. There are many examples of this: one that is highly visible on site is the attachment of work access platforms to beams and other structural members at ground level before they are hoisted into position. Although such practices are found on, for example, UK and US sites, it is the rule in Japan and more the exception elsewhere.

Causes, prevention and elimination of accidents

Despite careful attention to planning construction work, accidents do occur in the Japanese construction sector. Where injuries and fatalities arise, they can be traced back to the same kinds of cause found in the UK and US, namely falls, collapse of temporary works, falling materials and debris, and interaction with plant and machinery.

Reduction in injuries has been achieved in Japan through a variety of actions. The most obvious are the extent to which sites are posted with warning notices and the use of safety devices such as barriers, protected walkways and lifelines. Greater use of automation on construction sites, for example hydraulically operated work platforms instead of fixed scaffolding or mobile scaffolding towers, has also helped to reduce injuries. The physical evidence is that Japanese construction sites are all about how to work safely. Notices warn those entering the workplace, signs on site warn of particular dangers and physical barriers exclude personnel from dangerous locations. Japanese construction workers are left in no doubt as to the importance of safety awareness. The philosophy is simple enough: protect the worker from himself.

Further information on the routines through which the Japanese manage safety is given in case study 1.

Reinforcing safe practices

The level and extent of information posted on Japanese construction sites is such that workers could become immune to the importance of the messages it contains. However, it seems that the messages are observed and the requisite practices implemented. This is helped by determined site management. It is therefore difficult for a worker to deviate from what is acceptable. Moreover, as noted above, physical barriers and protective measures ensure that the worker is, to some extent, saved from himself. By not relying solely upon the safety consciousness of the worker, to determine whether or not he becomes a victim, Japanese construction sites are able to record long periods without accidents; these are a source of pride to the project manager and the Ministry of Labour, and widely publicised.

In reality, many large sites are safe places, certainly as safe as one might find anywhere. The difference between Japan, the UK and US is not one of culture so much as preparedness to accept that better ways are possible. Zero accidents may be an ideal, but it is a necessary target for all. The Japanese have no problem with this concept. For them, best practice means zero accidents.

Case study - How do the Japanese manage safety?

Health and safety is primarily an organisational responsibility: Japanese construction companies put measures in place rather than leaving them to the individual worker. All safety support is provided by the project. Everywhere on site must be checked and preparations made to eliminate or reduce hazards to the lowest achievable level. Protecting the individual worker is the greatest problem. Many construction companies provide all the safety equipment and clothing that the worker needs to leave as little as possible to individual responsibility.

There is a nation-wide regime of safety practices that varies little between companies and sites, stemming from recognition that there are some very simple steps that any sensible employer and worker should adopt, rather than from a desire to be conformist.

A typical daily cycle

There is a logical sequence to the ordering of a day on site that ensures everyone is briefed before being permitted to begin work. Workers undertake their own self-examination in terms of assessing their preparedness for facing the tasks ahead of them. They do this by working systematically through a checklist of items that are judged to be important for working safely on site. Training and health checks are a pre-requisite for joining a site and certificates, as proof of qualification, are always required for workers operating machinery, cranes and rigging electricity supplies. In some cases, workers will be given a rigorous physical examination on the site. At the end of the project, the worker's performance is evaluated against a checklist and used for gaining admittance to the next site.

Most workers arrive before or around 7.40 am and clock on using a swipe card; access to the site is generally restricted after 8.00 am. Workers and management gather for warm up exercises and a briefing - chorei - which begins promptly at 8.00 am. This is followed by an address from the project manager about progress and the priorities for the day with attention drawn to particular activities that may be important for safety or other reasons. Reference is made to the site plan, fixed to a large noticeboard, which the trades' foremen also use subsequently when addressing their comments to the workforce. At the end of the main briefing, individual workers check their clothing and safety equipment (harness, lifeline and hook) and that of a fellow worker. It is then time for them to look at the specific tasks that lie ahead.

Tool box meetings for each trade take place immediately after the main safety announcements and checks. These KY (kiken yochi) meetings are used to ensure that each worker understands objectives for the day and any special hazards that they might face or which they might impose on fellow workers. At the end of these meetings, typically lasting less than 10 minutes, work begins. On typical sites, the entire procedure from warm up exercises to starting work might be no more than 30 minutes.

At mid-morning, the trades' foremen or their managers undertake a safety patrol. Management of the patrol is by rotation amongst the contractors - this is known as toban. Plant and machinery, along with scaffolding and other temporary works, are inspected and guidance is provided where needed. Safety checks take place throughout the day.

Some companies have introduced changes to the basic cycle. In one example, random patrols are added to the regular patrols and the emphasis changed to safety verification and inspection. Greater onus is also placed on specialty contractors who are regarded as collaborators in this work. This subtle shift is intended to identify and eliminate practices that might otherwise be overlooked in a regime that has a predictable pattern. Involving those who could suffer most - in terms of falling victim to accidents - is seen to make specialty contractors more conscious about their own safety.

Immediately before or after lunch, a meeting of the trades' foremen is held to discuss the afternoon's work and the following day's schedule. Generally, workers spend 15 minutes tidying up their own work in readiness for the following day's work. At the day's end, workers are asked to "please return safely".

Normally, there will be newcomers to the site on a daily basis. Each is regarded as a potential safety risk, even though the worker may have been trained correctly and equipped for the task. On larger sites, there can be so many new starters that special arrangements have to be made. This begins with their being identified at the morning briefing, along with under-16s and over-60s. In some cases, newcomers to the site are identified as potential 'liabilities' by, for example, a blue cover over their safety helmet.

At the end of the briefing, the new recruits are taken to an assessment centre where each has to complete a health questionnaire. Tests are performed to check blood pressure levels and interviews held on an individual basis before anyone is authorised to start work. This whole procedure, from arriving at site before 8.00 am, takes approximately 90 minutes. It would be easy to say that a 90-minute delay represents a loss of production: the construction company would argue that it was time well spent in reducing the likelihood of accidents and would, in fact, improve productivity. Quality might also be better because of attention to the fitness of the worker in relation to the tasks he must perform.

Construction workers are also expected to reflect on how they have behaved in their work. Through self-assessment exercises they question their behaviour and performance, including lack of cooperation with fellow workers or being unsympathetic to the needs of others.

Weekly and monthly calendar and special events

The daily routine of a site is part of a larger picture of safety concern that takes on a national dimension in the form of an annual health and safety week. Throughout the rest of the year, there are weekly meetings of the entire workforce and site clean up, including communal areas. Separate meetings are held with the proprietors of the specialty contractors. The monthly calendar for construction sites follows different patterns depending on the construction company. An example is given below:

  • On the 1st day of the month, a major safety meeting is held at which managers reflect on the previous month's work and consider the plans and special needs of the coming month.
  • On the 9th, there is a special inspection of heavy machinery, for example cranes and other plant and equipment where the potential accident risk is high.
  • On the 10th, safety managers from the company's branch office visit the site and undertake an inspection.
  • On the 22nd, a health and safety conference is held for all specialty contractors.
  • On the 24th, plans are considered for the coming month, especially in identifying potential hazards. Matters of concern are noted and details submitted to the branch office.

In general, matters for discussion are split into management and technology, where the former touches on supervision and planning, and the latter upon design issues.

Technology push

Other developments in Japan are having an influence on exposure to hazards and other risks which workers routinely face. Technology is helping to change many facets of construction, especially in terms of information technology and telecommunications. Other innovations in technology are noticeable, with construction companies looking increasingly toward construction as a manufacturing process. By creating a factory environment on site and using predominantly dry rigid materials with high levels of off-site prefabrication, construction companies predict the need for far fewer workers in the future. These practices also help to reduce accidents because materials are not stockpiled or do not involve multiple handling. The need for high-risk temporary works is also reduced, as complete assemblies can be lifted, located and locked into position with little preparatory work.

Trends toward manufacturing are a response to concerns raised by skilled labour shortages, an ageing workforce and the related issue of employing migrant workers. Exposure of workers to the risk of the injury is reduced if the nature of the work process becomes less labour-intensive and better controlled. However, concerns are always raised when workers and machinery are mixed. The interaction of workers with plant and equipment may well increase, but with technology-enhanced machines - those with a wider range of controls and safety mechanisms - assisting the worker and extending his capabilities. Detailed accounts of automated construction sites have been widely publicised in the technical press and serve to support these views.

Setting goals for zero accidents

When setting goals for achieving zero accidents, it is important to involve the workforce. The concept should be well communicated as an on-going safety performance expectation for all workers, whether employees or sub-contractors' workers. Incremental introduction of the programme will be necessary. For example, employees who have not been working towards achieving zero accidents will respond positively to the goal of zero lost workday cases if communicated properly and thoroughly. Once an employee attains and sustains zero lost workday cases, it then may be appropriate to look closely at a more stringent goal such as zero accidents. If a more stringent goal is set too soon, the danger may be to drive the minor injuries or incidents underground. Clear guidelines and notices should be posted stating that all accidents and incidents must reported. Everyone must understand clearly that the goal to be attained is the actuality rather than the appearance of zero accidents.

A significant safety attitude change in workers will come from the goal of zero accidents as they realise that it is no longer acceptable to take chances or shortcuts. There will no longer be praise for shortcuts or chances taken by management. There will inevitably be negative thinkers among both the workforce and management. These should not be allowed to deny the rest of the employees the benefit of reduced injuries that stems from the concept of zero accidents. The concept is a socially responsible management attitude towards the health of a business' most important asset - its employees.

Zero accident techniques

The Construction Industry Institute in the US has developed 170 techniques to help with the drive towards zero accidents. Of these, the five of greatest significance and highest impact are given below. Their sub-elements are listed in table 1.

  • planning for safety at pre-project and pre-task stages;
  • safety orientation and training;
  • written safety incentives;
  • alcohol/substance abuse programme; and
  • accident/incident investigations.

<take in table>


Construction activity implies risk and the potential for accidents. This does not mean that either is inevitable or non-preventable. The construction sector has traditionally had a reputation for seeing accidents as one of the hazards of employment, as reflected in the attitudes of managers, supervisors and workers. Much can be learnt from the attitudes and perceived greater safety consciousness in Japanese construction and parts of the US construction sector. Significant reductions in the number of accidents have been achieved by a concerted effort to raise safety consciousness among the workforce.

Adopting the zero accident concept is a proactive means for reducing accidents. It is a concept that for many companies will require health and safety processes to be re-engineered in order for this goal to be achieved. It requires top management commitment. Adopting the concept is the first step, applying the concept will take a little longer and the final result longer still, depending upon the method of implementation and the eagerness of the company to achieve the goal.


  1. Falling through fragile roofs and roof-lights; falling from ladders, scaffolds and other work places; being struck by excavators, lift trucks or dumpers; overturning vehicles; being crushed by collapsing structures. These have been the five main causes of accidents in the UK. What do you suggest could be done to achieve zero accidents in these areas?
  1. What kind of health and safety training is available within your company? Would you say that this is sufficient? What more could and should be done?
  1. List three concrete actions that can be taken to increase the safety awareness on construction sites in your country. 

References and bibliography

Hughes, P. and Ferrett, E. (2011) Introduction to health and safety in construction, 2nd edition, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

St. John Holt, A. (2005) Principles of construction safety, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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