Construction Safety File debate

Safety files required by the Construction Regulations fail to improve construction health and safety, snaring SHEQ officials in red tape, say major contractors.

“The main focus of compliance to the Construction Regulations of 2003, has become the Safety File, which by law has to include reams of contracts and agreements, keeping SHEQ officials and inspectors in the office, while failing to reduce construction injuries and diseases,” said GMBA executive director Colin de Kock and HS&E specialist Doug Michell.

“We call for a debate on how to maintain compliance, reduce the paper chase, make the Safety File more accessible, shift the focus back to conditions and behaviour on site, and extend compliance to small contractors,” they pleaded at Shercon, hosted by Dekra at Sun City in March 2010.

Construction contractors and miners nodded in agreement, while Department of Health inspectors responded during question time by pointing out that many site problems are detectable in the Safety File.

Inspectors want status quo

De Kock showed slide after slide of evidence for a paper chase, including rooms full of files, some compliant systems being impractical and inconsistently used, and non-compliance on site while the Construction Regulations Safety File appeared to prove compliance.

Records of Department of Labour inspection blitzes on construction contractors prove that inspections and enforcement by way of notices and site closures, focused on Construction Regulations provisions for keeping the elaborate Safety File, while no closures related to site conditions, hazards, or risks.

“The Safety File, intended as a record or verification of controls, had become the main focus. Construction companies should focus on what is happening on site,” said De Kock.

Asked whether the Construction Regulations Safety File provisions should be simplified or streamlined to allow small and medium enterprises to develop compliance, in the way that some ISO standards have been simplified for SMME certification development, De Kock said he doubted that streamlining of the regulations would be possible.

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2 thoughts on “Construction Safety File debate

  1. I do not agree with Colin de Kock and Doug Michell on their lopsided view of upholding safety practice on construction sites.

    For any construction work to begin, the architect, civil, electrical engineers, etc need to prepare drawings for such construction work to take place.

    H&S is never considered in this project design phase. the reason is: Nobody takes H&S seriously!

    I worked for Dept of Labour and I was one of the people who decided that sites would be closed down even if there was visible compliance on the ground, but if there was lack of paperwork, the site would be shut close.

    Employers have a tendency of neglecting and even ignoring safety practice, and crying foul when told that they do not comply.

    Read the Construction Regulations, it starts with Reg 3, Notification of Construction Work – is this not paperwork?

    Employers are killing employees especially in the construction industry, often black employees. I say this tongue in cheek. Safety institutions and bodies are headed by white people, who now want to defy the regs. The very same white people who drafted the Act and its regs are going against it! -Khumisho Maphutha

    === Former editor responds; Khumisho, in your experience as a former DOL inspectorate employee, have DOL inspectorate initiatives in raising H&S awareness, compliance, regulation, and inspection capacity in the construction sector, made a difference in reducing incidents like slab collapses or trench collapses, or improved general hiring practices, labour training levels, and Sheq elements of materials supply quality?

    From inspection records, from comments by current DOL inspectors at Shercon, and from your comments above, is it fair to conclude that DOL compliance policy is directed at paper work relevant to about 11 provisions in the Regs? And to conclude that inspections focus on larger companies?

    From Compensation Fund claims and other records, it is clear that promulgation of the OH&S Act, and later of the Construction Regulations, had no visible effect on injuries statistics, while injury numbers rise and fall predictably coupled to economic activity.

    Would it be fair to note that mining legislation has a better record of leading and supporting mining industry initiatives at reducing fatalities and injuries, than construction legislation has?

    Is recent construction H&S enforcement perhaps a classic case of governance designed around bureaucracy? Duplication required in Safety Files is so rife, that H&S offices are becoming fire hazards.

    DOL inspection was once intended to be a service to the industry, rendered on site, from what I heard at an inspectorate policy and dedication meeting in Boksburg some four years ago. Has it perhaps become a service rendered by operators to the inspectorate?

    Would it be fair to speculate that the next refinement in inspection service may well be a requirement that operators hire independent legal register specialists to determine whether Safety Files comply? The principle is already established in environmental legislation, where operators pay directly for environmental impact assessments and environmental management, while the state’s only function is to assess the conclusions of independent assessors.

    Since inspectors hardly see much of the sites they inspect, and spend nearly all of their time on site in offices, could the next logical refinement be a requirement for operators to submit paper copies of their Safety Files to the DOL?

    Would it be fair to say that inspections are highly selective and biased towards office administration?

    The result is an ever increasing focus on the paper tiger, with some H&S officials, and some consultants rendering mainly paper compliance, inspection chaperoning, and legal representation. Some consultants even sell their service in these terms. Could this trend perhaps be named paper fronting?

    From recent construction inspection records it seems that inspections follow part of the model of external auditing, with less strict adherence to requirements for relevant qualifications, and less site leg work.

    Are inspectors champions of labour interests, or bureaucratic interests?

    Some companies may be relieved that you are no longer at the DOL, since your views may be taken as racist, and may incite some inspectors to see race in the Act, in the Regs, or in prosecution procedures, and to look for culprits of a certain colour. Also, your views may lead some companies to consider themselves exempt from legislation or prosecution.

    Legislators and H&S consultants would be surprised that reverse racism informed the Construction Regulations, or shaped DOL inspection practice.

    Could you propose a solution to the Safety File paper chase stalemate? And ways of raising compliance levels, to all the provisions in the Construction Regulations, among small and medium construction enterprises?

    May there be a model for SMME compliance, in the ISO example of reducing certification requirements to starter level for the benefit of SMMEs, to lead them towards certification?

    We do what we can to guide SMME contractors beyond compliance, and still I get the occasional call or email that poses these revealing questions; ‘What PPE should I supply to workers as the bare minimum? What organisation could I belong to to get a safety certificate?’

    I respond by explaining why the questions are wrong, and that legislation reveals the correct approach, since the legislator had already reduced best practice to a minimum code. Your comments, Khumisho, reminds me that the spirit and the letter of some legislation is open to very widely diverging interpretations.

    Your paradigm is one of enforcement by penalties, and ‘shut close’, to use your words, is the second strongest possible penalty, after imprisonment, for which the legislator has also made most adequate provision.

    Surely you have discovered that voluntary compliance is stronger than penalties, which are weak and blunt tools for changing organisational and individual behaviour. You are in a good position for contributing to this debate on how to improve construction H&S, since you have seen the inner workings of the inspectorate.

    I request your proposals for solutions to what may well become a paper stalemate, while construction industry culture remains inconsistent, risk prone, and a drain on our collective economic, labour and and social capital.

    -Sheqafrica, editor,

  2. I agree with the comments. These files are wasteful and do not improve site safety. The contents are far too elaborate for the average construction worker to understand and take note of. Hands on safety measures taken on site using common sense are what is required.Genuine safety concerns cannot be addressed due to the time it takes to produce and keep these safety files. Bodies in favour of these safety files seem not to understand real site safety issues.

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