28th June 2018
Focus – Risk Management

Risk Management – how to handle hidden risks in infrastructure projects

The public enquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is due to start later this year; much of the focus is likely to be on the retro-fitted external cladding. In the wake of the disaster, the government plans to strengthen fire safety testing for cladding systems on residential buildings, with the aim of ensuring that appropriate materials assessments are carried out. The British Standards Institute has been commissioned to introduce a new standard.

This terrible tragedy serves as a timely reminder to the construction industry that projects involving existing infrastructure can harbour hidden and unexpected risks that can become apparent at any time, and when they arise, they need to be effectively managed and handled.

Risk management techniques

Hidden risks come in many forms and include structural defects, fire, explosion, accident, sudden flooding, dangerous materials, to name but a few. Although risks in construction projects can be varied and complex, risk management techniques basically fall into four broad categories.

Avoidance – you could for instance refuse to undertake projects involving existing infrastructure where the original materials can no longer be identified, or are no longer considered safe, and may pose health and safety risks.

Transfer – this usually involves taking out appropriate insurance policies or delegating risk to subcontractors who will need to formally acknowledge their responsibilities.

Mitigation – ensuring that the correct working practices, safety equipment and training is in place to help reduce the likelihood of accidents, and deal effectively with their aftermath if they do.

Acceptance – the ‘Beast from the East’, the weather bomb that hit the UK early in the new year would fall into this category. It’s in this type of risk situation that effective control procedures and project management practices can mean that the impact is anticipated and lessened.

Preparing for the unexpected

Good management requires us all to look ahead and consider what risks our businesses could fall prey to. Natural disasters and industrial accidents are an unfortunate reality in the construction industry, and even with the most robust safety procedures in place, crises can occur without warning on site.

Whilst risk is a fact of life and cannot be eliminated entirely, there are techniques that can be employed to ensure that if problems arise, there is a methodology that can quickly be invoked to deal with them in the most appropriate way.

Developing an effective crisis management strategy

It’s important to have a crisis response plan in place that details the emergency response actions that may be appropriate in a range of unplanned scenarios, like securing dangerous areas, evacuating personnel, and alerting the appropriate authorities.

Many companies increase their readiness to deal with unpredictable crises by staging exercises and drills. Their aim is to ensure that staff not only receive the right safety training, but also develop the right mind set to ensure that they know how to quickly evaluate an emerging risk, and can confidently take appropriate action in the heat of the moment.

The immediate priorities in any crisis management plan are to contain the problem whilst protecting those on site and in surrounding areas from harm. A well-thought-out plan will contain step-by-step procedures to be followed and detail the responsibilities of personnel who find themselves involved in the incident. All construction workers should receive detailed briefings on what to do in a crisis, and these should be augmented by drills and other activities that increase their preparedness to respond.