By: Thomas H. Welby Published: August 2012

Safety Policy: Olympic Park Build Gets a "Gold Medal" for Health & Safety

The 2012 London Olympic Games, in progress as this is written, are proving a great success in terms of athletics and showmanship. The construction of the venues, Olympic Village, and associated infrastructure proved to be a rousing success as well. One of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Greater London was completed on time, and within budget. Forty-six thousand workers put in over 80 million man-hours, without a single fatality, and with an accident rate well below the national average for the U.K.

These impressive results were not the product of chance, but of thoughtful planning, and making health management - as well as accident prevention - top priorities throughout.

The entire project was planned as something of a "laboratory", with the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and the U.K.'s Health Services Executive (HSE) commissioning a number of studies and reports to memorialize what was done, and how such outstanding results were achieved.

An Occupational Health service was established, with a team of occupational hygienists and other professionals advising managers in the prevention and treatment of occupational sickness, and the promotion of healthy behaviors. Members of the OH team attended all senior team health and safety meetings, and provided support on-site to ensure that all design work, method statements and risk assessments took health risks into account.

The OH team had a strategy, and targeted, in particular, vibration, noise, respiratory issues, hazardous substances, and manual handling. The team was funded by the ODA, and its services provided free of charge to all contractors. The cost was about £350,000 a year over the three-year life of the project, but the payback was remarkable. It was estimated that exposure to occupational health risks was reduced by as much as two-thirds, and the reduced number of sick-days taken by project workers may have saved as much as £7 million over three years. This "return on investment" of roughly 7:1 suggests that having full-time occupational hygienists on larger projects is not only good for the workers, but makes economic sense as well.

Savings achieved thanks to the OH team well exceeded reduced sick-days, and benefited individual contractors as well. One example is that the OH team identified potential methacrylate exposure, and devised a simple but effective control regime, saving the contractor an estimated £20,000.

Following a site closure due to the identification of asbestos-containing materials, the OH team's ability to provide prompt, tailored asbestos-awareness training enabled another employer to quickly get its large workforce back to work, saving an estimated £656,000.

The desirability of devoting the same degree of attention during the design phase to occupational health risks as is given to safety issues is illustrated by the following account of problems encountered due to a modification to the design of decking on a number of bridges, when it was recognized that resulting hand-arm vibration and noise might be significant. This is one of a number of "Lessons Learned" published online by the ODA (london2012.com/ learninglegacy).

Both permanent and temporary bridges were to be constructed for access to the Olympic Park site. It was decided that five temporary bridges would include wooden, rather than asphalt decking, and that two of the five would need to be strong enough to accommodate a large fire engine. The enhanced strength requirement meant that approximately 16,000 holes would have to be drilled into the concrete base, and many more points screwed into place to better secure the decking.

The Principal Contractor building the temporary bridges detected a possible hand-arm vibration risk, when employees of the subcontractor working on the decking reported symptoms of possible carpal tunnel syndrome. The employees were referred to the on-site occupational health facilities for screening, and two were confirmed to have carpal tunnel syndrome, which was being exacerbated by the use of vibrational tools.

That finding triggered a review of the bridge decking activities by the on-site occupational hygienist. That review showed that employees could not use the drills for more than 30 minutes a day, without incurring excessive vibrational exposure. The hygienist also raised issues regarding the level of exposure to silica and wood dust, excessive noise exposure, and other manual handling concerns.

Limiting the daily use of the drills to 30 minutes would have produced an unacceptable delay in the completion of the bridge decking. Therefore, the contractor sourced, and the hygienists monitored the trial use of, a low-vibration drill, with an integrated extraction system to reduce exposure to wood dust and silica. The new drill was found to be safe for use for up to eight hours daily. Further monitoring was performed, and controls for silica and noise exposure were tightened. The number of fixings to batons was also reduced.

As stated in the "Lessons Learned" article, there were several earlier stages at which occupational health risks from the wooden decking ought to have been identified. While later review emphasized the failure to design out these particular risks, the good news is that, thanks to the proactive approach to health risks on the project, and the ready availability of occupational hygienists, significant reductions in vibration, noise, and silica exposure were achieved, with only a brief interruption in the decking installation.

Following completion of the Olympic project last year, a team from the Loughborough University's Schools of Business and Economics and Civil and Building Engineering was commissioned to review the techniques that produced the exemplary results. The key recommendations for future projects made by this study included several items I have stressed in this series.

First, lead from the top. The ODA set standards, and visibly engaged with the project workforce. Your company will excel in health and safety only if employees see that top management is genuinely committed to that goal.

The second key point is one I have mentioned often: develop competent supervisors. Your field supervisors should have both technical knowledge regarding health and safety, and communications skills to influence workers' understanding and behavior.

Third, foster an open, positive health and safety culture. The Olympic project made this a top priority from inception.

Fourth, reward good behavior. Incentives and rewards helped to promote safe behavior on the Olympic project, but positive feedback was the real reward in many cases.

Fifth, review and learn. Issues were constantly communicated and reviewed across the organization, and solutions to problems were formulated and implemented.

A sixth recommendation I would add to the foregoing is to devote more resources, and more training, to health issues, not just accident prevention. Historically, the positive impact of OSHA has been less dramatic in the occupational health area, where results (both positive and negative) are less immediate, and trickier to assess. The Olympic build proved the value of occupational hygienists, and that the associated cost was one which, on that project at least, was recouped many times over from reduced sick time, and creative, delay-minimizing problem-solving in the field.

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