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Roger McRae: The ConstructSafe Champion

The Construction Safety Council is ramping up its activities, especially the ConstructSafe programme, under its new chairman Roger McRae. Hugh de Lacy catches up with him on the eve of his departure from McConnell Dowell after three decades.

AS THE KEY LINK in the tightening chain around construction site health and safety, ConstructSafe will be the primary focus of Roger McRae’s role as newly appointed chairman of the governance board of the Construction Safety Council of New Zealand (CSCNZ).

Roger is the departing managing director of industry heavyweight McConnell Dowell – he’s been with the company for 30 years – and he views his new responsibilities as a further extension of his long-held commitment to workplace safety.

He had no specific plans following his departure from McConnell Dowell on June 30 this year, when he was replaced as head of the company’s New Zealand and Pacific Island operations by Fraser Wyllie, former executive general manager for projects at Downer.

Roger, 61, tells Contractor that, apart from his chairmanship of the CSCNZ, he’ll be sitting on his hands for a while, taking time to consider what his next role might involve.

His record at McConnell Dowell, no less than his extramural service on a range of industry-good organisations, reflects a career that began with the company as a site engineer in 1983, working his way up to become project manager in 1986.

After a four-year spell away from the company, he rejoined as project manager in Samoa in 1991, becoming operations manager in 1996.

He spent nine years in that role in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands for a company that, founded by Malcolm McConnell and Jim Dowell in 1961, was continuing to extend its overseas reach.

Roger found himself appointed managing director for the New Zealand and Pacific businesses in October 2000. At the time, the company had a turnover of around $30 million a year and a permanent workforce of fewer than 50, but under his watch it grew to $350 million and 1200 staff.

It achieved this by pursuing the founders’ appetite for what Roger describes as “high-risk and technically difficult projects”, including the Hobson Bay tunnel ($118 million), the Christchurch Ocean Outfall ($61 million), the Te Mihi geothermal power station ($450 million), the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) project of $2.2 billion, and the $1.2 billion Waterview Connection.

Roger’s notion of health and safety as part of a system of corporate values began to extend beyond the company when in 2008 he became a member of the Business Leaders Health and Safety Forum with its ZeroHarm initiative.

The idea of ZeroHarm, by which leadership, influence and shared learning were brought together to develop a new health and safety culture in New Zealand business, arose from the growing awareness that Kiwi workers, perhaps especially those in the construction industry, did not have an enviable safety record.

According to WorkSafe, this country suffers three times the number of workplace fatalities as Britain, and twice as many as Australia, the product of a she’ll-be-right attitude that scorned even such basic safety initiatives as steel-capped boots, hard hats and high-visibility vests. International OSH studies have to be interpreted with a grain of salt, as nations and states collect their data differently, but it has to be conceded that the large number of small Kiwi businesses, rugged terrain, and ‘have a go’ attitude do present a more challenging working environs.

It would be fair to say that, outside the big construction companies that joined, the forum was pushing snowballs uphill, and it wasn’t until the Pike River coalmine disaster of 2010 and the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-2011 that workplace safety culture penetrated the minds of Kiwi workers, or at least their managers and directors.

And indeed it was a shock for small-to-mid-sized companies to encounter the sophisticated workplace health and safety measures that the likes of McConnell Dowell, and especially Fletcher Earthquake Recovery brought to Canterbury.

Pike River highlighted the parlous and neglected state of workplace safety in this country, and the subsequent legislative changes gave momentum to a heightening nationwide safety consciousness.

In 2014 Roger became a member of the ZeroHarm leaders group, and the same year became a member of the CSCNZ, which had been founded in 2009 by Civil Contractors NZ (then the Contractors’ Federation), Registered Master Builders, Certified Builders, SiteSafe, WorkSafe, NZTA, ACC and the Specialist Trade Contractors Federation.

In the aftermath of Pike River and the Canterbury quakes, as health and safety training providers proliferated and a new culture began to permeate the nation’s workforce, the Construction Safety Council realised there was a need for something that allowed clients, employers and employees to have confidence that all those working on-site were competent and safe to do so.

So was born ConstructSafe, and it is today the council’s core initiative, bolstered not only by the chairmanship of Roger, but with a newly-appointed executive officer in Jon Harper-Slade, who took up the new role in May this year.

Roger McRae is confident the drive for greater construction health and safety is on the right track. He dismisses the notion that the 2015 H&S Act flies in the face of the Accident Compensation Corporation’s (ACC’s) ‘no-blame principle’ for injuries and accidents.

“The [2015] Act doesn’t necessarily attribute blame, even though it may hold a person or organisation accountable,” he says.

“What ACC does is provide support for people who are injured, and it does so on a no-blame basis, but that’s not necessarily in conflict with the H&S Act.”

That Act’s job is to reduce accidents and injuries by making people and organisations on the worksite more accountable, he iterates.

The underlying challenge to health and safety is that the construction industry currently has few barriers to entry, and “anybody can walk in off the street and start work as a labourer on what potentially could be a hazardous work site”.

Roger and the council’s answer under ConstructSafe is for every person on a work site to be assessed for competency to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of workplace hazards.

Provided this is applied across all construction sites, it will lead to a consistency in safety expectations that will enable the safety bar to be lifted across the industry, he says.

ConstructSafe competency testing came into place on all major projects on July 1, and in his new role as CSCNZ chairman Roger is committed to offering “greater leadership and accountability for safety at all levels of the industry”.

This article first appeared in Contractor August 2017.

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