On Friday the 13th, some people avoid walking under a ladder, boarding an aircraft or sealing a financial deal. On the construction site in Zuidas, this kind of superstition does not apply, since guaranteeing safety is ‘a technical issue, based on hard facts and data’, says Mark Biere, safety expert in the City of Amsterdam’s engineering department. He supervises, supports and advises on the projects in Zuidas. We talked to him and Faisel Baboe, integrated safety manager for the Nieuw-Zuid construction consortium, on how to reduce risks on the construction site in order to prevent as many accidents as possible.
Safety is all about people
‘In most cases, an accident results from the desire to resolve something quickly. It’s well-intentioned: let’s quickly do this or that, to save money or time for the boss. Or to help out a workmate’, says Biere, who supervises construction sites in various parts of Amsterdam. ‘That’s why supervising safety is really all about people. In the past, the safety expert on the construction site was like a police officer. But that’s the last thing you need. Having the ability and confidence to call each other to account is much more important.’ Baboe, who is supervising safety during the regeneration of Amsterdam Zuid station on behalf of the Nieuw-Zuid construction consortium, agrees: ‘Physical safety on the construction site starts with social safety.’
But how do you make sure that everyone on the construction site feels socially safe? Baboe believes that it’s personal contact that matters. ‘I spend a lot of time walking around sites. I also work for the RVS (Public Works Department) and have to deal with various different contractors. After a quick coffee, we take a walk around the site – an unannounced tour, with no hidden agenda, works really well. You can engage openly in conversation and you see and hear things. And if you encounter any issues, you can call in the planning engineer.’ Biere highlights another factor: ‘In order to guarantee that safety, you also need to be discreet. If someone reports something, it stays with me.’
Baking a birthday cake
Unsafe situations come in all shapes and sizes: the safety issues involved in lifting, the danger of falling, a disorganised site or working with hazardous substances. That’s why supervising safety is all about advance preparation, says Baboe. ‘A safety expert tests, checks and supervises. When you start baking a birthday cake, you don’t check if you have everything in the house you need on the day itself. You need to know what cake you plan to bake and want to have all the fresh ingredients ready.’ In Baboe’s view that means it’s all about preparation and reaching agreements. ‘If there’s a risk that things are about to go wrong, you also need to have the confidence to put a stop to things in the heat of the moment. People are the most important resource and must be protected at all cost.’
A final question for the experts. Does superstition about Friday the 13th actually still persist on the construction site? Both cannot help laughing in response. Biere struggles to think of an example. After some thought, Baboe says: ‘It was definitely the case thirty years ago. I can still recall work being put off until after the weekend when someone in the team was superstitious. That doesn’t happen anymore. And why would it? If you work well together and trust each other, every day’s a great day. And if you’re unlucky, an accident can also happen on Thursday the 12th.’