Leadership and worker involvement on the Olympic Park

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2012

Employment Studies Issue 15

Daniel Lucy, Research Fellow

Dan LucyTwo key strands of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) strategy[1] for improving the health and safety performance of Great Britain are leadership and involving the workforce. The UK construction industry is a high-risk sector and is considered to have an unacceptably high level of fatalities. Improvements in safety management have been made since the 1990s, but an independent review into health and safety in the sector[2] identified that eliminating fatalities would only be possible through the development of strong leadership and the promotion of a positive safety culture, including the engagement of the workforce.

On behalf of the HSE, IES has recently undertaken work exploring the role of leadership and approaches to worker involvement on the Olympic Park[3] construction site in London, where positive health and safety outcomes have been achieved.

Background on the Olympic Park

The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) was responsible for developing and building the new venues and infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and their use after 2012. The ODA was a ‘thin’ construction client (i.e. it did not manage work directly) and therefore appointed a separate organisation, CLM, to manage the construction programme. The work was organised via primary contractors, referred to as Tier 1 contractors, who took responsibility for their individual projects (e.g. the building of the stadium). Tier 1 contractors tended to employ sub-contractors (referred to as Tier 2 contractors) to carry out elements of the work, and Tier 2 contractors also sub-contracted elements of the work (to Tier 3 contractors).


Our work found that one of the strongest elements in creating a strong safety culture on the Park was the role played by senior figures from ODA and CLM in articulating a clear vision and strategy for not just health and safety, but also for welfare and well-being. Provision of high-quality welfare facilities on site and a commitment to decent terms and conditions of employment stemmed from a belief that a cared-for workforce would be an engaged workforce. Each Tier 1 contractor signed up to the ODA’s Health, Safety and Environment (HS & E) standard. The standard outlined a number of requirements relevant to leadership and worker involvement, and performance against key performance indicators (KPIs) were monitored for each of the Tier 1 contractors. Efforts were made by senior ODA/CLM leaders to work collaboratively with Tier 1 contractors, but there were also examples of senior leaders from ODA/CLM stopping work where standards were not met.

Senior leaders from the ODA and CLM spoke of wanting to establish a collaborative, mutually responsible, challenging and learning culture where each contractor assumed responsibility not only for their own area but across the site. Contractors on site talked about a more supportive culture than they had experienced on other sites (where the prime contractor typically saw health and safety as the problem of the contractor) and of being asked their opinions and engaged in discussions about how to improve. Our work found that the engagement of contractors in health and safety issues was supported by a health and safety leadership structure which effectively mainstreamed health and safety, and through a variety of meetings and fora that provided opportunities for contractors to learn from each other. The leadership structure, combined with high levels of communication on site, also ensured that all layers of the management and leadership structure understood the importance of health and safety on site.

Improvements in performance were supported by the collection of extensive monitoring data, not just on accidents and incidents, but the reporting of near misses and the extent to which key activities in support of a safety culture (such as daily pre-work briefings and behavioural safety courses) were carried out. Safety climate surveys were also carried out regularly to monitor workforce perceptions of the organisational commitment to safety, engagement in health and safety and other aspects of the health and safety culture on site. The data collected were used to identify trends and spot problems, and to facilitate collaborative discussions with contractors on how to improve.

Worker Involvement

Worker involvement in health and safety was supported by a range of activities. All workers received inductions both to the site as a whole and to their particular projects. Inductions emphasised key messages around safety and the importance of challenging other workers’ unsafe practices. All workers also received a behavioural safety orientation, which focused on engaging workers in an informal dialogue about safety and encouraging workers to think about the consequences of unsafe practice. Our research found high levels of communication on site, not solely about health and safety but also on the progress of work to date, and planned work ahead. Daily activity briefings (DABs) were conducted each day before the start of work to provide an opportunity to discuss the day’s work and for workers to report any hazards or issues. To support effective communication by supervisors and their ability to elicit feedback from the workforce, all supervisors on the site were required to undertake a behavioural safety course. This course aimed to develop soft skills amongst supervisors and enhance their ability to engage in a two-way dialogue with the workforce.

Workers were also encouraged to take part actively in safety, through safety circles or meetings. These were typically attended by senior management on the project and workers from each of the contractors on the particular project concerned. Where they were present on a project, a representative from a trade union was also present at these meetings. The opportunity for workers to engage with health and safety issues was enhanced on some projects through the provision of additional training on hazard identification and the practice of groups of workers inspecting the work areas of their colleagues, and feeding back on areas for improvement.

The ODA’s commitment to health and safety has been recognised by a number of awards and is impressive for a relatively poor performing sector in terms of health and safety. Nevertheless, good safety management systems are only part of the answer, and the efforts made to establish a positive safety culture, leadership from the top of the organisation and a variety of activities to engage the workforce appear to have provided positive results.

Footnotes [back]

  1. ‘The Health and Safety of Great Britain: Be part of the solution’, HSE
  2. Donaghy R (2009) ‘One Death is too Many – Inquiry into the Underlying Causes of Construction Fatal Accidents’ Rita Donaghy’s report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (July 2009)
  3. Lucy D, Tamkin P, Tyers C, Hicks B (2011) ‘Leadership and worker involvement on the Olympic Park’, HSE Research Report No 896

For more information on this work, please contact Jim Hillage at IES.