The safety industry has run riot on our shores, creating a network of rules and regulations to be obeyed and cursed in equal measures. Yet, despite the complexities, none of it seems to be making our world a safer place
Which European country would you believe has the best attitude to site safety? Without thinking about it, I would have been prepared to put my money on it being Switzerland. Perfectionist, punctilious, so tidy? I would have expected it to be a heaven of guardrails and of absolutely perfect construction practice.
It was a real eye-opener then when I went on a trip to look at biodiverse roofs (see pages 24-26) and our party ended up climbing a series of somewhat rickety and unsecured ladders. Only once were we asked to don safety jackets and hard hats, and that was on the roof of a platform at Zurich railway station - and even there the effect was somewhat muted by us being reminded not to fall off the edge of the roof, and not to stand too close to the live power cables.
It was surprising to discover that features that are now common here, such as extending stairs up to roof level, have not been adopted in Switzerland. When we visited the building site of the new Jacob Burckhardt Haus in Basel (shown above), the party was fascinated by the description of the artist-architect collaboration on the cladding, but equally shocked by the fact that it was possible for a group of about 20 people to access the site without signing in or putting on any safety equipment. And the standard of construction on the partially finished roof wasn't too great either.
Still, the Swiss don't do too badly, and we don't hear the sort of horror stories about the safety of their sites that, for example, emanated from Athens in the run-up to the Olympics. Apparently you are six times more likely to die on a construction site in Guatemala than you are in Switzerland. But doubtless the Swiss could tighten up their procedures and, given that falls from roofs are one of the most frequent hazards, that would seem eminently sensible.
Nobody wants a devil-may-care attitude to safety, and every death or serious injury that happens on a construction site is a tragedy too many. But it seems to be only in this country that the safety industry has run riot, creating a network of rules for design and construction that are more concerned with satisfying requirements than actually making the world a safer place.
Hence those endless roleplay meetings that design teams are pulled into prior to construction, the only benefit of which seems to be that, by spending time together in a fairly unpleasant environment, the team members bond like disaffected children at a boarding school. Or the stories about the ways in which designing buildings becomes more difficult by the day. For example, enormous turning circles have to be installed at delivery points, so that no vehicle should ever have to run the risk of backing out from a space; handrails and barriers proliferate (the Swiss have some really elegant balustrades, since their children are evidently too well-disciplined to think of pitching themselves to their deaths at every opportunity).
Instead of a real concern about safety and thinking creatively about how our buildings can provide good experiences to all users, we are just thickening the web of legislation and restrictions on creativity. The decision, with the demise of NHS Estates, to send responsibility for design in one direction and for safe design in another is symptomatic of the malaise. The whole process is becoming so complex that it is eating up money that could be spent on better buildings. Surely that can't be safe?