News & Views

Construction’s Biggest Problem

On 19 June 2013 two welders, Zac Payne and Michael Morris died after Zac fell asleep at the wheel of his van. They had been driving back to Doncaster after a night shift in Stevenage. Nottingham Crown Court found their employer had failed to ensure that they were properly rested to work and travel. At the time of the accident they hadn’t slept for around 26 hours. Their employer had hired the workers on a zero-hours contract, heavily incentivising them to take the shifts and it had also failed to follow its own fatigue management policy. The company, Renown Consultants Ltd, which had a turnover of £6m was ordered to pay fines and costs amounting to £750,000.

Although it is in a different sector, this story will resonate with many in our industry. In fact, Doncaster itself is home to many piling industry workers, who will be familiar with a long trip south at the start of a working week. How their fatigue is managed varies from business to business and is often outsourced to labour-only sub-contractors when temporary staff are required.

The Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) project with technology company, Fatigue Science, will raise awareness for businesses and individuals about how travel and working patterns can influence the quality and quantity of workers sleep. Analysis of the collected data will be shared with the industry late 2020. This research came as a result of the FPS Occupational Health and Wellbeing Charter. The same initiative also requires the next round of FPS audits to place a greater emphasis on evaluating fatigue management systems within member businesses. Similarly, the FPS will be working with its supply chain to produce best practice guidance for agencies providing operatives to our sites.
Fatal vehicle accidents, such as the one referred to in the introduction, are a graphic reminder of the consequences of a company’s failure to deal with risks posed by tiredness. However, there are many other associated consequences. Fatigue is known to lead to an increase in stress and, when combined with the isolation of remote working, this can develop into extremely serious mental health problems. Whether travelling long distances to a site or staying away from home it can make the opportunities for exercise limited and the availability of a healthy diet restricted.

Younger generations are now collectively making more consciously positive healthy lifestyle choices than their parents and it is reasonable to expect that this will extend to their career choices. Construction and the piling industry must prepare to embrace that. We have seen signs of significant positive progress particularly action on mental health. Indeed, the FPS has been benefiting from engagement with its charity partner Mates in Mind. Although it is worth noting that the education around this focuses largely on treating the symptoms rather than the cause itself.

The coronavirus crisis has shown us that different ways of working are possible. Virtual meetings and working from home have been successfully delivered and, in many cases, it’s been preferable to the traditional face-to-face approach. This affords an improved work-to-life balance and lends itself to flexible conditions, which can help accommodate caring requirements. Where projects have necessitated the need for people on site, then there too workers have seen greater flexibility over the hours they are required. Construction workers union Unite has demanded staggered start and finish times. Primarily this was driven to help ensure that thousands of workers are not travelling together on buses and trains, but it demonstrates practices, which would facilitate the employment of staff on part time contracts.

Willmott Dixon, BAM, Skanska and Bam Nuttall last year signed up to trial Timewise’s construction programme, which will focus on developing flexible work patterns for site jobs that typically have had quite rigid shift patterns. An interesting fact from their survey of construction job advertisements was that less than 5 percent mentioned flexible working options whereas across all industries it was 15 percent. Many will point to the nature of the capitally intensive foundation schemes making this difficult to deliver in ground engineering. However, job sharing, or split shifts may be more deliverable than offering an approach where workers have complete autonomy over their working hours. If successfully delivered it has the potential to increase productivity and lead to a reduction in average fixed costs, if I’m remembering my ‘A’ level economics correctly.

This way forward works particularly well with a localised labour force, which often isn’t the case. Workers typically travel long distances to their sites and often stay away from home during the week. We must question the sustainability of these practices and review the potential for a pooling of industry labour in order that journey times can be minimised.

Industry and society must act together on this to integrate these changes into our way of life. Longer ‘total’ site working hours may be difficult to accept in some urban communities and we must be careful to ensure that the privilege isn’t abused with individuals working even longer shifts. Government funding, legislation and punishment will be required to enable this new way of working.

Of course, the location of workplaces isn’t the only reason for long hours in the construction industry. Many businesses require office-based staff to work standard and rigid 50-hour weeks. Even within those offering shorter contract hours or flexible practices there remains a culture of ‘overwork’ amongst those in higher grade positions. Hours being put in for the sake of presence over productivity with many oblivious to the diminishing returns their efforts are producing. Often long hours cultures are used in conjunction with the work/family narrative to explain the lack of women in senior positions within the sectors organisations. However, recent research by Harvard Business School on a large financial services company suggests that men too suffer from this balance problem. In fact, without any benefits necessarily of stability or job security, more young fathers are choosing to prioritise their families over work – an issue that demands a socially conscientious approach from FPS members and the wider construction sector as it is crucial to the survival of the industry. However, women of course in these situations, were disproportionately affected because they were encouraged to make accommodations in their roles such as reduced working hours or internally facing roles whereas men typically were not.

The root cause of the problem was the culture of overwork, which locked gender inequality in place. Women who took up the option of those accommodations where available were unfairly stigmatised, and their careers derailed. Those who did not were made to feel that the qualities that they demonstrated in reaching senior positions did not align with a family identity which society dictated they also have. This push factor disincentivised other women from pursuing career advancement opportunities. In an industry which is also socially conditioned to a male bias such as construction it is therefore little wonder that women make up less than 15 percent of the workforce and less than 1 percent of site operatives. Reducing total working hours of Directors and Senior Managers would normalise the contribution of those employed on shorter hours contracts. Flexible working practices are part of the solution, but more sustainable working and travel times must be embraced by all if we are to successfully deal with overwork, construction’s biggest problem.

Author – Steve Hadley, Chair, Federation of Piling Specialists