Building a safer, smarter construction industry in the UK: tips for innovation

by Jenny Gruening

On site safety is a critical issue for the construction industry. Any failure to follow procedures can result in serious danger – putting employees, contractors and site visitors at risk. Worryingly, the UK’s construction industry currently sees 61,000 non-fatal injuries a year, and a further 37 fatal injuries. This issue also has serious financial implications; workplace injuries cost the UK construction industry an estimated £1.2 Billion in 2018/19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, managing safety became even more complicated. Although many sites closed down early on, governments were keen to re-open the industry in a bid to drive the economy – creating new challenges, like the need to social distance or keep up-to-the-minute records of who was on site at what time.

For an industry already under strain from labour and financial pressures (according to one survey, seven in ten saw their turnover decrease due to COVID-19), staying safe and productive is a serious challenge. Fortunately – as some construction companies proved – adopting new digital strategies can make a huge difference. 

These innovative ways of working won’t only prove beneficial during the pandemic. They can also empower businesses to keep workers safer in the long term – and can even help with other major industry challenges, like delays caused by material shortages

With insight from Smartsheet construction clients, here’s how leading companies in the industry are embracing digital processes to improve safety and productivity – now, and for the long-term.

Staying COVID-secure

While non-essential industries experienced mass shutdowns, construction was prioritised by the government as a sector that should continue working throughout the pandemic. But construction work demands that colleagues are often in close physical proximity to one another, which made two-metre social distancing requirements a serious issue. Many sites also have a revolving door of visitors, from employees to subcontractors and external parties. So, managing who was on site for track and trace was a huge concern. 

As several Smartsheet customers proved, digital platforms and tools could play a vital role in tackling these challenges. Many introduced measures that support the upkeep of COVID-related working measures – like the need to watch a daily briefing video to update workers on current measures. While some used automated forms accessed via QR code to keep track of who is on site and what they’re working on. 

COVID-19 won’t last forever – but even as we learn to live with the pandemic, new digital processes can continue to protect workers, while also boosting efficiency and productivity.

Cultural change, technological evolution 

A proactive, rigorous and process-driven approach to safety and security is crucial for keeping workers and sites safe. However, historic cultural issues – like the industry’s long-standing reliance on paper based processes – can make it difficult to report, track or respond to safety issues. 

Digital processes developed to maintain COVID security can be rolled out to improve site safety in the long term – and increasing familiarity with these digital platforms can be leveraged to improve processes and achieve smarter outcomes across the board.  

Mosaic Transit Group, for example, uses Smartsheet to identify, track and respond to safety issues at speed. By capturing project details in real time via live dashboards, health and safety teams can confirm checklist requirements and deal with potential safety issues promptly as they arise. 

"With the dashboards, we have that visibility,” says Stephen Agla, health, safety and security manager for Mosaic Transit Group. “We can monitor alignment with our audit processes and see if there are any gaps. Instead of going to individual sites and looking at their safety boards — getting it archaically that way — I can see all the information as I’m sitting in one location.”

Smarter safety through digitisation: exploring the possibilities

Workers on construction projects can be exposed to potentially life-threatening situations, so any opportunity to improve safety processes should be seized upon. This could include setting up a platform to ensure that everyone has access to site-training videos at any time, rather than sitting employees down in front of a dusty VCR on their first day. It might be giving workers the ability to report dangers on site with a simple QR code scanning process. Or, it could be providing a mobile app that allows on-site and office-based workers to confirm that flagged issues have been actioned. 

Sutter Roofing uses Smartsheet to ensure continual employee growth, while also keeping track of qualifications and suitability for jobs. Within the platform, employees can view course descriptions, register for training, and track their progress through the ‘Sutter University’ – and they can also log industry qualifications, giving the business a clear view of which workers are qualified to work on projects with special skill or regulatory requirements. 

Staying safe now and in the future

Keeping people safe is an evergreen concern for the construction industry. All construction companies can benefit by adopting strategies like these to work more dynamically, solve tough challenges, and crucially, protect their people. The ability to demonstrate a clear safety record could even boost recruitment efforts, at a time when so many are finding it difficult to hire the right people.

Safety will only become more important as activity ramps back up; with many projects having been delayed since the pandemic began, construction companies are reporting huge increases in workload, with serious pressure to deliver against tight timelines. Maintaining safety and security on-site is a must, even during the busiest of periods, so getting robust processes in place now could save lives later. 

A platform like Smartsheet can be invaluable here – helping to improve issue reporting, capture every concern, and keep everyone aligned on best practice, no matter how pressured work becomes. Fortunately, with the right digital safety measures in place, the future looks bright for an industry booming back to life. 

Explore how construction businesses are improving safety, efficiency and productivity with Smartsheet