Despite growing awareness about the importance of safe work practices, the construction sector in Australia is falling short in its efforts to reduce accidents on job sites, a leading safety consultant says.

Emma Bentton, founder of mobile application safety systems provider Systems on a Shoestring, said practices had improved throughout the building sector in a number of areas but that gains in outcomes over recent years had not matched those delivered in other areas of the economy.

“I would say it is not making the grade,” Bentton said.

“Compare it to something like mining where about 20 years ago they decided to have zero fatalities in their industry. They achieved that in some states and then the quarrying industry had its first fatality in over 10 years – they are pretty remarkable statistics. We have a fatality a week in construction, so we’re not doing great.”

Bentton’s comments follow the release of a Safe Work Australia report which gave a mixed assessment with regard to perceptions about safety practices and attitudes amongst employers and workers. With workers in the sector generally agreed that as much as possible was being done to promote safe practices and that communication about safety issues was strong but concerns were raised, for instance, that around a quarter of workers said they accepted risk taking where schedules were tight.

Despite not having made the same progress compared with other sectors, Bentton said construction safety has improved in a number of areas, including avoidance of potential for underground service strikes through having temporary fencing around construction sites which is not buried into the ground, more rails appearing on roofs when work is being done, more tags appearing on electronic leads, better visibility on personal protective clothing, better traffic control and greater acknowledgement of the importance of things such as safe work method statements and confined space training.

She said contractors are generally receptive to addressing issues which are raised that may not have been previously noticed, such as ladders with rungs which are out of shape or with the wrong weight restrictions on them.

Asked how directors and companies were performing in terms of managing liability, Bentton said there had been a push right down from large clients to smaller contractors to invest in safety systems. She added that having at least one staff member responsible for safety, as many companies now do, was helping companies to develop and maintain a reasonable amount of intellectual property in that area.

Still, she said problems may have now arisen from an overly cautious attitude toward areas of risk with which they may not be familiar and potentially an overly-prescriptive approach. This, she feels, could potentially lead to companies taking on board liability they did not need to and contractors and workers second guessing themselves as they go about their work.

Instead, she said directors, managers and safety officers should engage with workers about how they want to perform required tasks and what may be causing any types of behaviour which does not appear to be in step with safety policies or procedures, with safety officers guiding contractors and workers but still allowing those doing the work to utilise their own expertise with regard to how best to perform the task at hand.

“As a safety manager, I am not the builder but rather I am the person who looks at the job through risk-averse eyes, running through the checks and balances and asking questions,” Bentton said.

“Guiding them, questioning them and testing their procedures is a sensible approach. By going beyond simply auditing against procedures and actually engaging with workers and contractors in a constructive manner, you are much more likely to gain insights from those with knowledge on the job about where the next incident could come from.”