Industry eye

Watching a programme about the construction of the Shard at London Bridge, I was struck by what a difficult – and potentially dangerous - task it was to install the distinctive angled glazing panels. But, with ingenuity, organisation and specialist skills, it was a task that was carried out safely.

While few projects will present challenges such as those encountered in constructing the UK’s tallest tower, many of you will have worked on projects where the design and detailing introduce potential risks to workers’ safety. So it makes sense to teach design students about health and safety as part of their university degrees.

But there’s a problem here. Those three words, ‘health and safety’, can have such negative connotations, conjuring up images of inflexible jobsworths who want to ban conker fighting from the playground. And can you imagine a less sexy lecture title?

A joint report by the RIBA and HSE into how architecture students should be taught about health and safety* says that it is more important for students to understand the principles rather than learn the detail of safety legislation. This sounds like a good approach, although how to instil the right ethos is more tricky.

The best way, says the report, is to actually build things: design and construct models in the workshop or small projects out in the community. This way, the reality of having to create things without causing harm to yourself or others is really brought home.

At the moment, some architectural students are being subjected to ‘health and safety’ lectures without having the chance to see what it means in practice. Some lecturers even feel that having to think about such mundane things during design projects will stifle students’ creativity.

This means that there will be many architecture graduates who have already been trained to think that health and safety is a boring subject, meant for other less-creative types to think about. But what we need is architects who can put their creative brainpower to use on working out innovative ways to put buildings together and maintain them.

We have to hope that there is a change in the way health and safety is taught to all architectural students. Maybe this will result in a new breed of designer who will invent buildings just as fabulous as the Shard, but with fabulously safe assembly techniques too.

This article has been written for Industry Image by Kristina Smith, who is a freelance construction writer and editor.

*HSE Research Report RR925 - Healthy Design, Creative Safety - Approaches to health and safety teaching and learning in undergraduate schools of architecture