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FPS chairman’s blog: It’s a long, long day…

Working hours are set to come under the Federation of Piling Specialists’ spotlight in a bid to understand how this affects the industry and limits diversity

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Alasdair Henderson is chair of the Federation of Piling Specialists

Year-on-year, economists highlight the poor productivity of the UK worker compared with their counterparts across most of Europe, Japan and the US, yet this might seem paradoxical when you consider that the UK has also the longest working week in Europe as surely more work means greater productivity?

The two may well be linked, but not quite in the way we all would assume; perhaps the long working week is what is contributing to poor productivity. Numerous studies have linked long working hours and irregular shift patterns to poor health and an individual’s greater propensity to illness and injury. So maybe the time has come to recognise its impact on the performance and output of the workforce too.

With construction one of the worst offenders for long working hours and consequently a reputation for poor health, illness and injury, over the coming months the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) will be looking into the issue. Specifically, the FPS is asking its members to share their experiences of working hours arrangements across the industry to gain an understanding of the present situation.

With the data to hand, the FPS is looking to see if there is any compelling evidence around the safety, health and productivity benefits of well-managed working hours and shift patterns. Among other findings, one would anticipate reduced fatigue, reduced incident frequency and severity, reduced quality issues and re-work, enhanced productivity, and enhanced employee wellbeing. It is hoped that a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence will be found across the various areas that can be used to support guidelines and, into the future, present new evidence-based ways of working that maximise productivity and reduce health and safety issues.

This would require the industry to make some significant changes. Take for example the economic impact on the site trades workforce; the present hourly-pay arrangements encourage long working hours rather than rewarding safe and efficient delivery. The effect of reduced working hours on weekly pay packets would need to be addressed, and indeed could be, if it came alongside better overall productivity and a “performance and development” culture for individuals – something the piling sector could champion if evidence supports it.

Long working hours is just one issue and we are hoping to get a handle on the nature of hours worked from a social perspective. Working fewer anti-social hours will help make the industry more accessible to the groups who are currently under-represented and could encourage greater diversity in site-based construction roles. We know that anti-social working hours are a barrier to many groups, particularly those with a caring responsibility for children, parents or partners.

All this is pretty much common sense, but the biggest hurdle will be getting the industry to take a leap out of its current comfort zone and therefore act and think differently. Any changes to working practices will need the engagement of the entire industry, including customers and of course there will be the inevitable naysayers, but we are already seeing some clients taking proactive steps. Take Network Rail as an example, it has chosen to place a limit on door-to-door shift durations to make a meaningful difference in tackling fatigue and safety issues. This limit (while still on the long side at 14hrs) is respected, effectively monitored by projects and has practical acceptance across the sector. Others will surely follow.

Perhaps the time has come to drop the old “hard work never killed anyone” culture and instead adopt a more progressive attitude to working that not only improves the lives of the people in our industry, but actually impacts positively on the bottom line through productivity gains and a happier healthier workforce. Working until you drop is no longer an option!

 Alasdair Henderson is chair of the Federation of Piling Specialists


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