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Fallen houses

Rebuilding safely

Craig Marriott Service Line Lead

Craig Marriott | Principal and Global Safety Consulting Service Line Lead | 31 July 2017

The immediate impacts of a major disaster are obvious and often well-publicised. However, in our 24-hour, media-saturated world this interest only lasts a few weeks before a new headline takes over and our attention is diverted elsewhere.

But for those affected by these disasters, recovery can take years. Fear of further events, displacement of families, loss of income and amenities, recovery from injuries and the battle with insurers all adds to ongoing stress. Inevitably, a large number of people become involved in the physical works required to restore a community, with the construction boom being one of the few bright spots following the event. The last thing needed on top of everything else is a serious injury or fatality from this construction work.

Maintaining safety through a rebuild

A rebuild program is a huge undertaking. Many organisations are involved and there is often a large strain on available resources.

This inevitably leads to the recruitment of inexperienced people to meet demand. Setting expectations and standards early, and across the whole workforce, helps to ensure the required safety understanding and processes are in place. For example, following the Christchurch earthquake of 2011, companies came together to sign a safety charter for the rebuild. This not only set a minimum expectation, but more importantly demonstrated the need to manage safety effectively.

The safety approach must be consistent across the whole program of work. This is not only to keep safety standards high, but to minimize the changes as workers move from project to project. Differences in terminology, requirements and expectations between projects can have a significant impact on the ability of workers to do the right thing, and can set them up to fail.

The body responsible for the recovery should treat the rebuild as a single program of work, rather than a series of discrete projects.

A rebuild programme is a huge undertaking. Many organisations are involved and there is often a large strain on available resources.

The program can then be established under an overarching safety management plan that sets out expectations for all projects to follow – leading indicators, minimum requirements, reporting processes, lessons learnt. This maintains the consistency of approach and, when driven by the client across the whole program, allows for sharing of knowledge, good practice and innovations.

In addition, this approach prevents every project reinventing the systems over and over, allowing for both continuous improvement and increased efficiency. Anything that makes the program more efficient will have benefits for the entire workforce and local community.

The effective planning of a rebuild should not be overlooked in terms of its benefits to safety. Clearly, the better a program is planned, the quicker the community will recover. But program pressures involved in delivering the right project on time and on budget can also have a detrimental impact to safety on site if not managed well. Many investigations have found that such pressures play a part in accident causation. To help mitigate this risk, following the Queensland floods in 2011, we helped the State Government develop a value for money assessment tool to determine the priority order of recovery activities. This allowed the Government to identify the required recovery activities and their importance, and plan their program and budget accordingly.


All of the above measures are after the fact – protecting some individuals during the rebuild. Naturally, the most effective way of minimizing harm is to have the least amount of rebuilding and recovery possible after an event. It is good to be able to save people from harm during a rebuild, but what if hundreds could be saved through avoidance in the first place?

As with all safety, our aim is to turn hindsight into foresight; prevent rather than recover.

To do this we need to spend more time proactively avoiding the biggest risks that are sometimes difficult to identify, rather than managing smaller, more obvious ones. Many organisations and authorities have emergency response plans in place, but far fewer have effective readiness plans.

In 2010, Chile suffered a major earthquake from which the speed of recovery was remarkable in comparison to other similar events. This has been attributed to the enormous amount of preparation put in by the Chilean Government and authorities following a history of major quakes – using the hindsight of previous disasters as foresight ahead of the next. This preparation included:

  • Evacuation drills
  • Seismic engineering standards
  • Immediate response preparation

As a result, this meant less damage and fewer people injured or killed.

We have a history of failing to learn from major accidents, whether they be natural or industrial. Let’s not wait until after the next major one to talk, yet again, about what we should have done. 


  • Let’s maintain the equipment rather than reducing costs by delaying it until next year
  • Let’s respond to our workers who tell us there is gas in the mine, instead of hoping it won’t reach explosive levels
  • Let’s build to withstand earthquakes instead of counting on the chance that they won’t strike

While there is always a balance to be considered between risk and cost, the impact of major disasters is usually underestimated. So, let’s be proactive and turn hindsight into foresight.