Back in 2008, an academic paper exploring the construction industry’s working culture found that:
- Pressure to carry out works as quickly and cheaply as possible often led to corner-cutting and risky behaviour, with site managers frequently turning a blind eye to unsafe practices.
- A ‘macho’ culture on site (99% of site workers were male in 2006) frequently resulted in behaviours such as risk taking, bravado and physical overexertion.
- The transient nature of construction work meant that workers often felt pressure to behave in a certain way and do things ‘how they have always been done’ in order to quickly fit in.
- This then resulted in a site culture that was insular, strongly resistant to change and hostile towards those who went against the grain or called out poor practices.
Nearly 15 years later, we still have a certain mental picture of construction culture as dirty, dangerous, lacking in diversity and distinctly unprofessional. According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), women remain firmly in the minority, comprising just 15% of the construction workforce and 2% of on-site workers. Workers from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds fare even worse, making up just 6% of the workforce.
So, have things really changed at all? To what extent, if at all, has the construction industry managed to transform its culture in the 15 years since the 2008 paper was published?
The beginning of a cultural shift
An article in Construction Industry News earlier this year marked the fifth anniversary since the Grenfell Tower disaster, a tragedy that highlighted the need for cultural change across the industry. The article commented that “Current practices show that the industry, often, focusses on sales and profit; cheaper products and money saved; quantity of content rather than the quality of content, over the safety of the building and its residents.”
The Building Safety Act, which received royal assent in April 2022, however, could be the beginning of a shift towards a safer and more responsible working culture. Dame Judith Hackitt, the leader of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster and a driving force behind the Building Safety Act, said:
“The construction industry is waking up to the reality that this is really going to happen. I am delighted to hear […] that more than 300 organisations have now signed up to the Building a Safer Future charter and a similar number to the Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI).
Higher standards of safety
So, what difference will the Building Safety Act make to the industry? Will the new charters and codes popping up across the sector be enough to finally promote a change for the better?
According to the government, the Building Safety Act “overhauls existing regulations, creating lasting change and makes clear how residential buildings should be constructed, maintained and made safe.” Two new regulatory bodies, the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) and the National Construction Products Regulator (NRCP) have been established to oversee the safety and performance of buildings and construction products, respectively. We can only hope that such an increase in regulatory scrutiny will drive compliance with the new legislation and a shift towards a safer, more responsible construction industry.
Meanwhile, the Building a Safer Future charter is a voluntary code of conduct that firms can sign up to in order to indicate their dedication to cultural change. By signing the charter, signatories (which currently include housebuilders like Barratt Homes, Persimmon and Redrow, the CIOB, Homes England and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors) have pledged to respect five key commitments:
- Collaborate to spearhead culture change and be the voice of building safety across our sector;
- Be transparent in the interests of safety, sharing key information with residents, clients, contractors and statutory bodies in a useful and accessible manner;
- Make safety a key factor of choice in who we work with, ensuring that building safety is placed at the centre of selection decisions without compromising quality or value for money;
- Ensure that the voices and safety of residents, visitors and employees are central to our decision-making process; and
- Set out and communicate clear responsibilities within our organisation and with our partners, ensuring everyone with a stake in the building during design, construction and occupation understands their role and has the time and resources they need to achieve and maintain building safety.
What can firms do at an individual level to promote change?
The Construction Industry Council’s (CIC’s) #roadmapforchange initiative identifies six key areas that construction firms can aim to address in order to promote cultural change across their business. Working to improve just a few of these areas would represent a significant leap forward for firms determined to make a change for the better.
- Image – this is all about breaking down stereotypes about the industry by setting a great example. Building a diverse workforce and promoting an inclusive work environment will go a long way to busting those negative myths and promoting a more positive, modern image of the industry.
- Progression – a workplace that values its people and cares about career progression sets a great example and boosts public perceptions of the industry.
- Procurement – a constant drive to keep costs down leads to poor quality builds and reputational damage. A mentality that places emphasis on value rather than cost is likely to lead to safer builds and a better reputation for the industry.
- Inclusive design – inclusive design means creating an accommodating built environment that reflects the needs of the entire community. For example, designing and constructing buildings that are accessible to disabled people as standard, and generally allow everybody in the community to participate equally and independently in daily activities.
- Leadership – a strong commitment to cultural change needs to begin at a leadership level. Individual employees can be as open and inclusive as they like, but unless management is on board, very little is likely to change.
- Technology – embracing new technology and digital techniques leads to improvements in performance, efficiency and quality.
Now is the time
OK, so we may have rambled on for a little longer than usual here, but cultural change in the construction industry is a very interesting and relevant topic right now, with new information and initiatives coming out all the time. From what we’ve seen and the research we’ve conducted while writing this blog, it’s clear that the industry’s moment is now. There has never been more momentum behind cultural change than there is today, with new building safety legislation pushing the industry to act.
Now is the time for construction companies to be proactive, not reactive. It’s time to really push for cultural change so that the industry is ready for the wave of new legislation coming its way – otherwise firms might find themselves being swept away by the tide.