Worker safety has always been paramount, but how have technology and process enhancements improved the wellbeing of workers? Take a look at the lives and careers of the McAllister family to find out.
George started his career aged 16 in 1956, working on the M1, Britain’s first full-length motorway. George and his fellow road workers undertook 55-hour weeks to meet targets of completing 1 mile of road every 8 days. Safety, health and wellbeing was a concern, but the dangers of working on road sites were relatively unknown; in the very early days, the M1 had no speed limit, lighting or even a central reservation or crash barrier to protect drivers and road workers. Diesel fumes from passing vehicles and plant contributed to poor air quality around the sites where he worked, drastically affecting George’s health.
Thomas was also 16 when he started on his first highways project in 1981, working on the final section of the M25. Compared to the beginning of his father’s career, there was a marked improvement in road-side infrastructure and Thomas remembers when PPE became mandatory in the 1990s. He also remembers site inductions being introduced to make him and his team aware of hazards in the workplace and to set expectations of safety behaviours and arrangements.
This became increasingly important during his working life as fewer new motorways were being built, but many of the existing ones were being widened or having technology introduced. This meant working on ‘live’ roads rather than constructing in ‘green fields’, which brought about new safety challenges. These were addressed by replacing traffic cones with robust physical barriers to protect workers, as well as implementing improved processes to enable quicker and more efficient problem solving, reducing time on site.
Maeve was two years older than her father and grandfather were when they started their careers, after completing her GCSEs and starting an apprenticeship through a college and a local contractor. She spends just a quarter of her time working on-site on the UK’s motorway network. Instead, she puts together as much of the roadside infrastructure as possible in a factory, before supervising its assembly in-situ. As part of her apprenticeship, she has been researching this form of offsite manufacturing and feels a great sense of achievement when she sees the final result, knowing that it is sustainable, safe and puts customers’ journeys at its heart.
Maeve is often asked for her input on projects by her leaders, as they are keen for teams to plan the work collaboratively, using everyone’s knowledge and experience to make things safer, more efficient and cost-effective. She really enjoys project planning and is working with her mentor to build a career pathway in this direction after her apprenticeship.
With the implementation of electric plant, Maeve trusts that her health and wellbeing will not be adversely affected by her job in the same way as her Grandpa George’s was; air quality on site is much better. Maeve remembers her grandfather coughing all the time and telling stories of the dirty and often dangerous conditions that he had to work in, and is thankful for the progress that has been made.
The next generation
The health, safety and wellbeing of road workers has taken a giant leap forwards since the UK’s first motorway was built, from zero-harm culture to the implementation of electric plant and adoption of offsite manufacturing; the joint benefits of which are even greater than the sum of the parts for workers, customers and our environment.
These changes won’t entirely replace road workers, but they will minimise the dangers and issues that George and Thomas faced, while also increasing productivity, quality control, job satisfaction and reliability.