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Safety on Construction Site

#talkingwith Ana Gramaça / Percentil

In this interview, we delve into the perspective of Ana Gramaça, technical director of health and safety in construction at Percentil, a company noted for its commitment to safety and the environment over two decades. With a unique approach to partnership culture and customer support, Ana highlights the importance of safety on site, addressing the challenges of the sector, the evolution of safety in Portugal, and the transformative role of technological innovations. Join us in this #àconversacom to discover the guest’s vision of how these transformations are shaping the future of construction.

How important is safety on site?

Safety on site is fundamental to guaranteeing a safe and healthy working environment for all workers. It is important that companies (whether they are contractors or subcontractors) have effective safety policies and measures in place to prevent accidents at work. Prevent accidents and incidents from happening, so as not to put workers’ health and lives at risk. I would say that safety is one of the main pillars ensuring the well-being of workers, but the company itself also stands to gain from this investment in safety. An accident at work can be very costly for an employer. There is an improvement in overall productivity if we are working in a safer environment, without accidents or illnesses. It ends up being advantageous for everyone involved to give due importance to safety on site.

What are the main mistakes on site?

In our experience, one of the main mistakes has to do with planning, or rather a lack of planning and preparation. This is compounded by a lack of knowledge about security, the measures and their importance. Unfortunately, we still see a lot of that shrug of the shoulders, “I’m just going to do this, it’s quick”. The fact that there are, for example, unqualified workers for certain jobs and handling equipment where the necessary PPE is not used, either through negligence or because the worker himself doesn’t want to use certain safer equipment, demonstrates this.

Another very important mistake, in my opinion, is the lack of communication between the parties. Percentil is a company that is external to the executing entities, and if there isn’t good communication between us and the executing entity, we won’t be able to resolve what comes next.

In general, how can we avoid mistakes or accidents?

I often say that there are two very important issues when it comes to reducing and preventing accidents: safe conditions and safe behavior. The condition is the Performing Entity, and also the employer, who makes it available, and the safe behavior is the worker who has to have an ingrained culture of safety. If these two are united, it doesn’t mean that there are no accidents, but we can greatly minimize accidents.

We recently had a situation that demonstrates this. We were rehabilitating a space where there were scaffolding platforms for making ceilings. The scaffolding was certified, with guards, stabilizers, etc. We therefore had safe conditions for the worker. However, the worker’s task was to work on mats and threaded rods, and he wasn’t wearing a hard hat, so he chose not to. As a result, when he climbed the scaffolding platform, he hit his head on a threaded rod, fractured his skull and went to hospital. So, although there was a safe condition, there was no safe behavior. And the opposite is true, because sometimes I can behave safely, but if the workplace doesn’t have the right conditions… And there are construction sites with very difficult conditions…

How has safety on construction sites evolved in Portugal?

The general feeling is that things are getting better. We end up seeing improvements through insistence and persistence. We’ve seen that, over the time we’ve been working with them, some of our clients end up wanting to improve their safety performance, they ask for opinions, more specific training, and that turns out to be a good indicator.

Has there been any evolution in security itself or in your role over the years?

I would say that there has always been progress in safety, if only through more sophisticated and safer equipment, through an interest in preventing accidents with preventive measures implemented efficiently and at the right time.

However, I think it would be important to revise our legislation so that we can continue to improve. We know that there are projects out there trying to make this happen, but nothing concrete yet. For example, there is a scaffolding decree in force from 1958, such as the use of scaffolding with wooden planks, which is no longer commonly used today.

What role has technology played? What developments have there been?

Undoubtedly, the evolution of technology has had a major impact on security. On the security control side, there are various shared information platforms at our disposal, which allow us to improve communication and document management between the parties.

On the equipment side, we have noticed that large equipment has improved and become safer over time, possibly due to accidents that have occurred. We are also hearing more and more about so-called smart PPE, such as firefighter suits that measure your vital factors, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. In our case, we’re talking about smart clothing. Let’s imagine clothing that changes color if you’re faced with a certain toxic substance, or gloves that change color. There are helmets with noise sensors, dust sensors, smoke sensors, temperature sensors, even a GPS locator in case you need to quickly identify a worker’s location in the event of an accident.

All this has been made possible by the evolution of technology. Not only does it help our work, but it also brings more and better safety for everyone.

What opportunities for improvement do you see for contractors?

I would focus on better communication and a better safety culture.

On the communication side, if there is better communication between the site management and the safety technician, it will be fundamental in terms of predicting future activities that will take place on the site, to minimize the associated risks, to implement measures and even, eventually, to acquire some equipment that is necessary to prevent that risk. This type of communication is something we feel is sometimes lacking, and then we have to chase the damage. It should be our practice, during our weekly visits to construction sites, to study the planning together with the site manager or foreman, identifying upcoming activities, inherent risks and any preventative measures that could be applied, as well as the need to purchase certain equipment.

When it comes to safety culture, I often say to the foremen: “the work is the face of the foreman”. And they laugh. What we feel in general is that if the foreman is good, the site is usually well controlled. If there is a foreman who is interested in safety, as well as the site manager and the company itself, we have a great ally.

What do you think will be the most important issues in the coming years?

I think it’s important to revise our outdated legislation, to insist on qualified/specialized training for the tasks, and for ACT to share more issues related to construction, so that they feel concerned too, and to visit more construction sites, not necessarily the typical visit to ask for documentation to be sent afterwards, but to go with a view to raising awareness and growth in this area of safety. We still rely on ACT, sometimes saying “look, if ACT comes, this isn’t right”.

Another relevant topic could also be, as already mentioned, the adoption of intelligent PPE, which can help/facilitate tasks. For example, in confined spaces, if the PPE changes color when it detects that we are facing a substance, promptly signaling that I have to get out of there, it is a great help, with a positive impact on safety.

What are the most tense issues between safety and the contractor, and how can they be resolved?

Sometimes there are moments of greater tension between the safety technician and the site manager, because normally the site manager wants production, and therefore to go ahead with the work, and the safety technician, it’s not that he doesn’t also want production, but he wants safe production. We are sometimes seen as the ones who delay the work.

This is where our important role comes in: to go in, talk and make those responsible understand our role and why we are asking them to make a certain correction or implement a preventative measure in a certain activity that is taking place. Of course, this goes hand in hand with all the costs involved, because when we arrive at a construction site and ask for missing equipment to be purchased, it creates tension due to the increase in costs, making it difficult to implement certain safety measures. Our goal is always zero accidents and zero future consequences for workers, but when there are no accidents, people sometimes tend to make it easier. We are, in fact, a partner, working on behalf of the contractor.

How has safety been going on the São Bento site, and what have been the biggest challenges so far?

There’s certainly a great desire for prevention, rather than correction – because when we talk about correction, it’s because it’s already wrong, isn’t it? You can see it, for example, when they immediately make a lifeline for those working on the roof. When I was at your São Bento construction site, almost right at the start of the measurements, I immediately noticed a care in the use of the guardrails and in covering up areas that were already open between floors – what we call the assoalhamento. I noticed concern, and that immediately makes us more comfortable. Then, obviously, we’ll always have to improve as the work progresses, not least because it’s not just Beelt’s team out there, but also its subcontractors who are sometimes more “rebellious”, but we want to continue to be part of Beelt’s growth.

I think Beelt is on the road to growth in terms of safety culture. And I also notice that in the requests for information we make, the response tends to be quick.

What characteristics do you think are important for Beelt’s success?

I would say that what characterizes you best is the continuous improvement of your processes. As you encounter challenges, you continue to learn and improve continuously. And this can be seen in what I mentioned about the attitude towards safety, where everything isn’t always perfect, but there’s a desire to do it well. It’s already common for site managers to ask us for specific procedures: “We’re going to be working on the roof’s metal structure, we need to do a specific procedure”. Excellent, that’s anticipating, that’s planning. This characteristic of continuous improvement in processes seems to me to be a feature of success.


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