Changing mindsets

A trainee project manager has succeeded where experienced health and safety professionals dream to make a difference: changing the attitudes of construction workers to their occupational safety.

This work earned her the title of Young Health and Safety Champion at the International Safety Awards 2018. 

Araceli Carqueijo joined Overbury in August 2017 as a management trainee on the company’s two-year foundation programme, which allows young people to gain experience of the industry and be trained in various management roles. The programme includes rotations in project management, planning, technical services and quantity surveying. Araceli is currently doing her third stage of the programme in technical services. 

Originally from Luanda, the capital of Angola, Araceli explains how she became interested in construction.

“My father was a very curious and open-minded man, interested in buildings and architecture, who enjoyed criticising various structures as we walked together around Luanda. I wanted to join him and give my opinions about these issues.

After I finished my Arts college degree, I came to Manchester, where my brother was studying mechanical engineering, planning to study architecture or architectural technology. Unfortunately, my grades from Angola didn’t match the university’s requirements and I was advised to go back to college. And that is what I did.

“During my final year of construction and the built environment at Manchester College, Overbury made a presentation at the college, promoting the company’s foundation programme, for which I applied and was accepted. That January, I started studying construction project management at Salford University.

How and why have you become involved in health and safety?

“In Angola, I was able to see life from different perspectives. Although my parents weren’t wealthy, they were able to give me a good education at an international school, where I was surrounded by people from privileged backgrounds. At the same time, I have friends from families with very limited means. My grandmother, to whom I was very close, came from an area where people had very few material possessions. Growing up in such an environment, I came to believe in equality in the broadest sense.

Changing the attitudes of construction workers to their occupational safety. This work earned Araceli the title of Young Health and Safety Champion at the International Safety Awards 2018

“I treat people in the same way as I wish to be treated myself. This mindset fits with good health and safety practices. People should be going to work because they enjoy what they do and the environment in which they work. Their work should give them a sense of accomplishment.

“During the first part of my training, which was project management planning, I worked on an office refit site with construction workers. There were many tough guys there, twice my age, who had spent their whole life in construction. I had to manage them and consider my ‘approach’ strategy.

I focused on the company’s health and safety standards. Whenever I saw something wrong I would explain to the person the reason why it was so. They soon understood that my role was to keep them safe. Gradually, they started trusting me and this resulted in a family-like atmosphere on the site.

Every day I would go around and ask ‘How are you? How is your day going? Are there any problems today?’ They would tell me when there was a problem and, at other times, they would come to me and say in a joking way: ‘Hey, I have my helmet on!’ or ‘I have my gloves on!’.”

What are the health and safety challenges at Overbury?

Rachel Butler, health, safety and wellbeing manager at Overbury, explains: “Overbury is a fit out and refurbishment specialist in the office, retail banking, education and technology sectors. We’re part of Morgan Sindall Group plc, a leading UK construction and regeneration group, with a turnover of over £2 billion a year. With six offices in the UK, our teams have the resources and local knowledge to deliver projects across the country. Health, safety and wellbeing is critically important for us.

Araceli received her award at the 2018 International Safety Awards gala dinner

“Overbury works in a very competitive market. We must be a forward-thinking business to attract such clients as PwC and the BBC (the company completed a refit of Broadcasting House in London and Media City UK in Salford). We work with project management consultants who select contractors on the basis of price, quality, programme content and staff competency. Increasingly, health and safety feature in our tenders; our clients require evidence of our understanding of health and safety management systems.

“Like the rest of the industry, the greatest health and safety risks the company faces are musculoskeletal disorders, manual handling, falls from height, dust, noise and vibration, as well as mental health. Ninety-nine to 100 per cent of our construction work is carried out by our sub-contractors, because we’re a project management company. 

If our sub-contractors don’t have a good canteen on site or the health and safety standards are poor, unconsciously, they won’t do a good job for us and, ultimately, for our clients. Therefore, there is a significant focus on people and how we treat them. 

“Some time ago, the company introduced various health and safety procedures and management systems, which significantly reduced accident rates. Araceli was able to influence the culture and the way she worked touched on the next level of health and safety management.

She didn’t go around with a clipboard telling people to get down off their ladders. She created a family feel on site, so if anybody struggled with something, they would talk to her about it. They came to the site where Araceli was working and were able to feel like they were spending time with their friends.

Turning to Araceli, Rachel said: “How you’ve managed to get so many operatives to keep a dust mask on all day, especially in this heat, is beyond me! You helped them understand the risks they were taking, that dust is such a huge killer in our industry. Somehow, you’ve managed to influence them to set an example to others coming to work on the same site. Moreover, they hired an enclosed tent with its own dust extraction equipment because they wanted to keep the dust segregated, so other people around them wouldn’t be affected. It was a completely different mindset and attitude towards health, safety and wellbeing.”

Rachel Butler continues praising Araceli’s work: “The way in which Araceli dealt with a situation when a worker suffered a stroke while working on her site speaks volumes about her and her attitude. It greatly helped him make a full recovery. She wasn’t even a first aider.

Araceli recalls that day: “I was assisting the site manager. I called the emergency services immediately and made sure the man had the space and water. I knew that the site manager and the worker needed me at that moment. It was also about ensuring that nobody around was interfering with the situation. I was managing people’s fears, as well as mine.

Health, safety and wellbeing for all

“Overbury has recently opened up the whole company to health, safety and wellbeing conversations. We host health, safety and wellbeing forums every month and it is attended by everyone in the company, from graduates to the managing directors. 

We talk about challenges, trends and accidents statistics, as well as best practice. We have received excellent feedback from these sessions and have started to implement the recommendations from the forums. Using a QR code reader, people share their safety observations, experiences and suggestions anonymously, more openly and honestly than before. The feedback forms help us to identify the areas that require improvement,” explains Rachel.

“That feedback also gave us a better understanding of why many workers have such a poor diet. They don’t eat properly because they arrive at a building site at 5 or 6am to avoid the traffic.

Then they just grab whatever they can. We have a facility to heat and refrigerate food. We’ve also installed blenders and coffee machines. Some sites like to have smoothie bars. We have the ability to involve a nutritionist who moves from site to site advising people how to eat better. The company is also considering introducing gyms on our sites, with rowing and running machines, so operatives and our staff can take a break from work, relax and exercise.”

High expectations

The guests at the International Safety Awards gala evening at Grosvenor House, London in 2018 won’t forget the young champion who, after receiving her award from Lawrence Waterman, chair of the British Safety Council, took the microphone and made an impromptu heartfelt speech.

Araceli says: “I remember looking around and seeing 600 brilliant people, who were there because they believed in the best health and safety standards for all. Being there, among them, inspired me. That’s why I felt compelled to say something when I won the award. I had to say that every person in that room had the power to influence people around them. The only reason why I won that award was because I had great mentors who influenced my life and my work.

“I have high expectations of health and safety, particularly in relation to the construction industry and not everyone, particularly outside the sector, shares them. When you go to a hospital, you expect to be treated by a qualified doctor, who uses suitable equipment and works in a hygienic environment. The health sector protects its reputation and its professional standards. I believe that the same should apply to the construction industry. People often assume roles expected of them. If the general public has low expectations of health and safety in construction, workers’ expectations will reflect this,” argues Araceli.

Leading by example?

Rachel Butler added: “Since Araceli won the Young H&S Champion award, we have seen a huge rise of people interested in raising health and safety awareness in other areas of the company’s operations, including our supply chain, which now carry out dust monitoring and face-fit testing as standard. The next step for us is to allow our subcontractors to come up with their own ideas.

They have already liaised with us regarding initiatives, such as lung functionality testing. “This encouraged more open and honest behaviours and reporting of near misses and unsafe behaviours.”

“We have also invited college students to one of our projects in Leeds where, for the first time, we have opened up the opportunity of a career in health and safety.”

Araceli, what was your most challenging achievement?

“I believe that the hardest thing a person can do is to overcome the perceptions and expectations that society presents you with. When I started my placement with Overbury, I didn’t believe that people and attitudes could change. The guys I worked with have proved me wrong. One day, I would like to become a spokesperson on health and safety issues and talk about changing attitudes and mindsets.”

Apply for the International Safety Awards 2019 here