All designers and contractors involved in the planning and execution of construction work must take into account the general principles of prevention when carrying out their respective duties. As a fundamental requirement of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the principles provide a framework to identify and implement practical and procedural measures to protect the safety and health of workers, and those who may be adversely affected by work activities.
In practice, the general principles of prevention require an approach that goes beyond ‘simple’ methodologies, such as the hierarchy of control. So, just what are these general principles of prevention and how might they be applied in practice?
9 Principles of Prevention
1 Avoid risks
Logically, the most effective way of avoiding risk is to entirely eliminate the hazard that gives rise to risk in the first place.
Example: The hazards associated with entering underground chambers in sewage treatment plants include surface and foul water systems. If the design can be changed so that such places are open to the general atmosphere and well ventilated, those hazards won’t be present.
2 Evaluate the risks that can’t be avoided
When evaluating risks, it’s important to take a structured and collaborative approach; communication between designers and contractors is essential if the risks are to be adequately evaluated. Designers need to liaise with others to establish how different aspects of designs interact and influence health and safety. Design reviews that focus on health and safety issues, alongside other key aspects of the project, should also be carried out.
It’s important to keep a written record of the evaluative decisions. This will help essential information be passed on to others, making it clear what needs to be done and providing an information base from which to carry out reviews.
Project specific risk assessments and associated method statements should also be prepared, implemented and monitored by the contractors who are carrying out construction work.
3 Combat risks at the source
Risks should be addressed, or dealt with, at the source. In other words, the control measures should be close to the danger point and effective in reducing the risk.
Example: Wood dust can be harmful if inhaled. Circular saws with effective mechanical dust extraction systems are designed so that the dust is immediately captured at the point of creation, combating the risk at the source.
4 Adapt the work to the individual
Just like physical limitations, people have limits when it comes to their ability to analyse cognitive data, such as instructions or instrumentation readings. Monotonous work can be alleviated by adapting the design of workplaces, the choice of work equipment and the choice of working and production methods.
Example: The working environment can be a source of stress when it is too hot, too cold or too noisy. Adding in repetitive, monotonous tasks can increase risk. By involving those who carry out the work, or the end users of the structure, when considering such ergonomic issues is a useful way of ensuring those risks are minimised.
5 Adapt to technical progress
Technology continues to influence the modern workplace, so it’s important to keep informed about the latest technical knowledge when selecting working methods, equipment, materials and work equipment. In general, technical progress leads to improved performance, better ergonomics and reduced risks.
Example: Work in confined spaces may expose people to non-respirable atmospheres, and toxic and flammable gases. Older gas monitoring equipment has now largely been replaced with multi-function gas detectors. New technology has also led to video systems that can remotely inspect confined spaces such as sewers.
6 Replace the dangerous with the non-dangerous or the less dangerous
Commonly known as ‘substitution’, this principle involves reviewing the choices that are available and then selecting the ones that either pose no danger to workers, or selecting the ones where the dangers are reduced. A broad sweep of hazards in the working environment, the task, materials, plant and tools, should be considered. Substitution can also involve changing the proposed process.
Example: Mechanical fixing systems can reduce the overall risk when compared to alternative chemical fixing systems. Water-based paints can be substituted for those that contain harmful solvents. Using low-temperature asphalt can helps prevent exposure to toxic substances when carrying out road repairs.
Designers and contractors should ensure they are aware of what is available to substitute with safer alternatives.
7 Develop a coherent overall prevention policy
To effectively control risks, the whole safety system needs to be considered. This includes the individual, task, plant and equipment, the organisation, the management of the whole project, and the wider environment.
It’s important not to simply focus on the immediate hazards that are common to the construction industry; there is also a need to identify the underlying factors that cause injuries. These are often associated with the culture of an organisation, or on the project.
Culture strongly influences the attitudes and behaviour of everyone involved, and is usually addressed under the theme of ‘human failure’. Advice on reducing the incidence of both errors and violations is now widely available, and many contractors are introducing behavioural change programmes that, if led from the very top of the organisation, can demonstrate commitment at every level and lead to a raising of standards on site.
8 Give collective protective measures priority over individual protective measures
Collective protective measures control the risks to more than one person and have major advantages over individual protective measures. Personal protective measures rarely prevent accidents from occurring. Instead, they may mitigate the outcome, but only if they are correctly fitted and worn.
Example: A properly fixed and positioned guard rail at the edge of a working platform protects everyone from falling and requires no action by the workers who benefit from it. Safety harnesses, however, require individuals to make use of them. They need suitable anchorages and fall arrest devices that must be available and suitably maintained. Harnesses often create considerable practical difficulties in their use. Hence, the likelihood of harnesses achieving the same degree of success as a guard rail in preventing injuries is small.
9 Give appropriate instructions to workers
Appropriate instructions should describe the risks in the proposed work and refer to the protective measures that should be in place - equipment to be used, personal protective equipment to be worn etc.
Instructions should be communicated in a way that is readily understood by the workers. In other words, be both comprehensible and relevant. Common communication techniques include induction training, toolbox talks, daily briefings, and providing written or pictorial instructions.
Given the complexity of challenges that the construction industry faces in terms of operational risks, an integrative approach by designers and contractors when planning construction work is essential if risks are to be effectively managed. ‘ERIC Saves People’ (ERIC-SP) is certainly a useful starting point, however, taking account of all of the general principles of prevention is a fundamental requirement of CDM 2015.