Exploring the Record-Breaking Health and Safety Performance of the 2012 Olympic Games

July 9, 2013
The London 2012 Olympic Games were the safest Olympics ever in terms of constructing the facilities. Here’s how and why these Games were the safest yet.

During the 2012 Olympics, many records were broken in the pool and on the track, but there is little recognition of the other records that were broken during construction of the many venues, housing, transportation systems and park development.

At one point, the employee count in the London 2012 project peaked to 12,500. In all, 46,000 total workers worked to build the 2012 London Olympics, incurring 62 million man-hours.

London 2012 was the safest Olympic build ever, with a reported injury rate of 0.17 per 100,000 man-hours (0.34 per 100 full-time employees by the method used in the U.S.) – far below the 0.55 building industry average in the U.K. The effort lasted 4 years, and for the first time in Olympic history all projects were completed without a fatality:

  • 1996 Barcelona construction: 1 fatality
  • 2000 Sydney construction: 1 fatality
  • 2004 Greece construction: 14 fatalities
  • 2008 Beijing construction: 10 fatalities
  • 2012 London construction: 0 fatalities

(Source: London Olympics Construction Is Safest In Recent Times)

Lagging and Leading Indicators

Based on the estimated number of man-hours and the amount of the workers that would be on-site, the United Kingdom estimated that the entire project would incur three deaths and more than 500 serious injuries, with perhaps 100 or so of those dramatically changing the workers’ lives. (Source: A Lesson On Safety From The London Olympics)

This was unacceptable for the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). They took aggressive steps to ensure that no fatalities would occur and that if injuries did happen, they would not be serious or impact the employees for the rest of their lives. How would they pull this off? They knew that they would still have to use traditional safety disciplines at the site to meet regulatory requirements, but would have to deploy new tactics to reach this lofty, “unattainable” goal. After all, these traditional disciplines routinely produce fatalities and serious injuries. It was going to take out-of-the-box thinking that would later produce a formula that would prove successful. For example, read this directive:

“Build us an Olympic Park. Do it all on time – there is no opportunity for slippage. Do it all on budget – there is a limited amount of money, and it has to be spent wisely. Build it with high quality – it’s all got to work. And, oh, by the way, don’t kill anybody, and don’t cause any harm.”

Pretty straight forward. A speech that many of us have heard before yet cannot accomplish.

Let’s explore this further by going back in history…

The Golden Gate Bridge

In the 1930s, the New Deal created many construction projects that would not only put a majority of our nation back to work and out of the Great Depression, it also served as a breeding ground for some of the most revolutionary advancements in employee, consumer and public safety.

During this era, bridge builders expected to lose one worker per $1 million in construction costs. Using this benchmark, it was expected that 35 workers would lose their lives during the erection of this massive suspension bridge, mostly from falls. These statistics were unacceptable to Joseph Strauss, the chief project engineer.

His site was the first for many things considered “overboard,” “not necessary,” “going above what is required,” etc.:

  • “Hard Hats Required”
  • Use of safety nets
  • Use of belt harnesses
  • Development of sand-blast, air supplied respirator
  • Glare-free goggles
  • Mandatory use of hand and face cream to protect against the wind
  • Special diets to help fight dizziness
  • Hearing protection

During the bridge erection, 11 workers lost their lives. Although this was 11 too many, for that time, this was unprecedented. Additionally, there were 19 members of the Halfway to Hell Club, a fraternity of men whose lives were saved by the safety nets.

Perhaps Mr. Strauss was onto something? Could it be that he realized that protecting the lives of his workers was of greater value compared to other project managers at that time? Did he realize that the loss of his skilled labor force would only add to further delays in the timely completion of the project? Also, he took into account the health of his employees by recognizing a diet could affect the equilibrium of workers.

So how did London do it? How did they reach this “impossible” goal?

There are a lot of things that happened behind the scenes. But there was one definite approach that had not been used in past Olympic builds. The simple answer: employee health & safety. It merged as one mission, one process, one goal.

The Difference Maker

To any seasoned safety or health professional, the term “combining safety and health” may seem like a catch phrase. After all, a majority of both disciplines still believe that although the two terms can somewhat be connected, they will never be fully connected.

However, in the London Olympic project, these idealistic views can be questioned. And the success is not arguable. Health and safety became “health & safety,” a connected term.

The ODA took into account the HEALTH of their employees, contractors and subcontractors. They even made the bold statement that “we determined that although many more construction workers have their health damaged than are injured in accidents, it would not happen in our program.”

This caused the ODA to take a closer look at employees that worked on projects. They found that 28 percent were classified as “obese,” 41 percent were overweight and 29percent had high blood pressure. While these findings are a far cry from not using the right tool or not tying off as necessary to protect against a fall, they did represent hazards brought onto the job site. As safety and health professionals, we all are well aware of the studies conducted regarding these conditions and how it affects (and sometimes even directly contributes) to workplace injuries. It was evident that there were different risk exposures that needed to be addressed to ensure success.

One causal analysis determined that many of the employees elected to skip breakfast and consume fatty foods the night before. This affected their work performance the next day. It might seem elementary, but the employees were more concerned about when they could eat lunch and what they were going to eat instead of focusing on the job at hand. The ODA heeded these warnings and decided to offer a low-cost breakfast option (porridge) to employees showing up at their sites.

Now, porridge was not the difference maker. It was ODA’s concern with not only the “safety” of the employee on the jobsite, but the underlying factors that directly influence jobsite safety: the health and well-being of the employee. The porridge was just one proactive step to avoid a possible injury or fatality. But there were many, many more pre-emptive actions taken based on leading indicators.

Occupational Health Services Involvement

U.K. Occupational Health Services, a team of medical professionals made up of nurses, physiotherapists and occupational hygienists whose primary focus was employee health and well-being, were not only responsible for treating job related injuries on-site, but also played a crucial role in prevention by promoting healthy living.

Success? Seventy-eight percent of those working on sites confirmed that OHS interventions with service “encouraged them to make positive changes to how they worked in order to look after their health” and “73 percent of managers believed they would behave differently in the future as a result of what they learned.” (Source: Health and Safety at London 2012)

I challenge you to go the Health and Safety Executive Web site. Look at these reports. As you read them, notice how many times you see occupational health employee involvement, the frequency of the term “observations,” and how many times directives are aimed at senior level management.

What they also have is a plan to build culture. A plan to build safety culture. How many of you have a written plan to build a safety culture? Most believe it happens through osmosis from a good, well thought out written safety program. It does not. If you don’t have a good safety culture, your program will fail. And if you don’t contemplate the employee’s health into your safety program, it will be a disaster.

Mr. Strauss proved previous metrics wrong by thinking outside the box and not only embracing new tactics to make his jobsite safer, but understanding that the health of his employees was equally as important. So did the ODA and all workers at the London Olympics.

Health & Safety: It no longer is a far-fetched concept!

Eric Glass, a senior EHS advisor with UL’s Workplace Health and Safety division, has 18 years of risk management, loss control and safety experience. He is an OSHA Outreach trainer and advises companies on the design of advanced risk management and safety programs. In addition, Glass provides insight for workplace safety training and software development and contributes to UL’s Fire and Electrical Safety Audits offering for international ready-made garment factories. He also assisted with development of Florida’s first continuing education safety curriculum for service contractors in the HVAC, electrical and plumbing industries.

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