Where does BIM stand on health and safety?

24 June 2014 | By Richard Voke, Ashfords solicitors

The subject of BIM is not a stranger to this website so I will not labour too much on the technicalities. However, it seems to me that one area of its development that has not been fully explored is its effects on health and safety in construction – well, not to my satisfaction anyway.

The government’s 2016 and 2025 targets are directly or indirectly BIM related, which means it is likely to become a major part of the construction landscape in the coming years. Some organisations have taken BIM to their hearts, while others see it as another round of hoop jumping to be suffered and part of the conspiracy to put all construction into the hands of a few large operators. The fear is that BIM will exacerbate the existing divide between large contractors and construction SMEs, in terms of ability to tender on significant projects.

But the HSE and other regulators should wholeheartedly welcome BIM because of the possible transparency it could provide with regard to understanding building projects. 

In theory health and safety should be built into the BIM process, from the start – from identifying the issues at the inception, leading through to selection of construction materials and the selection of design processes. It has the potential to stimulate health and safety assessments and all design parameters, as stated above, should be transparent. Such parameters will include the choice of temporary works while being built and how to manage the building after completion.

If all this happens, when something goes wrong all this information will be harvested as part of an investigation by the HSE. All decisions of all contractors will be laid bare and open to scrutiny and possibly challenge.

In a previous life I was an HSE inspector specialising in major hazards. As part of any accident investigation into a process or structure failure, computer models and the modelling data would be looked at.– Richard Voke

This may be new to construction, but this modelling approach has been around in the major hazard industries [rail, nuclear, onshore and offshore oil and gas] for years. In a previous life I was an HSE inspector specialising in major hazards. As part of any accident investigation into a process or structure failure, computer models and the modelling data would be looked at. These models would incorporate or be based on the risk management processes that were considered as the project was developed – usually the HAZOP (Hazard Operability) study. This information would very often identify the failure mode and provide a trail back through the decision process that led to the failure.

It may be that HSE construction inspectors in future years may be walking onto construction accident sites following accidents and asking for access to the BIM data, much as HSE major hazard inspectors have asked for the process modelling and HAZOPs. It may be that not everybody will be comfortable with this.

Again the above development may split the industry into two camps. One camp will house those who see HSE inspectors having this amount of insight into a project as an opportunity to show how well they have thought things through and how, either, any accident was one of those non-foreseeable risks that the HSE are not supposed to prosecute these days, or that the problem was patently a problem of one of their contractors who they appointed in good faith with no reason to believe that they were not up to the job. 

The other camp will house those who will perhaps find this amount of transparency slightly unnerving even if they are a conscientious, good performer. There may be the suspicion that BIM is a process that larger companies will seek to isolate themselves from blame. Therefore, again I suspect the camps will reflect the large company small company divide.

One last health and safety related point concerning BIM relates to when the building is handed over to the FM team of the client as a sort of sophisticated CDM health and safety file. Will the model be able to be kept up to date by the FM team and suitably maintained? It is well know that accidents happen sometimes because people work from out of date plans.

Is a poorly maintained BIM model going to have the same detrimental effects as “out-of-date” plans? I think the benefits of BIM will outweigh all of the problems, but there are still a few things related to health and safety management that need the industry’s consideration.

Richard Voke is a partner at Ashfords solicitors and head of the firm’s business risk and regulation team