Professor Helen Lingard helps build safer work environments for thousands of Australian and international construction workers.
Workers in building and construction are at higher risk of death or injury than those in many other occupations, with figures from SafeWork Australia showing the industry accounted for 12 per cent of the nation's work-related fatalities in 2013-14.
What is your current research focus?
My current research focus is on how best to integrate occupational health and safety considerations into the social processes, the structure and organisation of work in the project-based construction industry.
One project is researching which health promotion interventions have been designed, implemented and evaluated in construction projects. Health and safety is improved by integrating health and safety into early project decision-making and involving people with in-depth knowledge of construction materials, methods and processes in this decision-making.
What’s your goal - what do you seek to learn?
I seek to learn how the construction industry can change its approach to the procurement, design and management of construction projects to ensure that health and safety considerations are considered as an integral part of business/project decision-making.
In the competitive and hierarchical construction industry, change must be driven from the top down to eliminate hazards or reduce health and safety risks through the development of technological control measures
What is your approach in your work?
I work with client organisations, construction firms and government agencies to undertake applied research into practical challenges experienced by industry partners.
What is the impact of your research - who will it affect and how?
My research impacts all construction industry stakeholders, including workers, unions, employers, clients and professionals.
The aim is to improve health and safety for all construction industry workers. Previous research into work-life balance and burnout identified project-based workers, irrespective of occupation or level, at high risk group for work-family conflict and burnout.
What drew you to this specific field?
I undertook research into construction health and safety in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. Back then, the health and safety performance of the Hong Kong construction industry was poor.
I understood some of the serious structural and organisational challenges to improving health and safety in construction, including a heavy reliance on multiple layers of subcontracting, workers' language and literacy issues, significant production pressures and unforgiving work schedules.
How has your work developed over the years?
I have come to understand the complexity of the industry has grown. Originally I sought solutions through the implementation of health and safety strategies within a single organisation.
I now know that construction projects are delivered through complex networks of activity and solutions must span the inter-organisational landscape of construction projects.
How does Australia compare with other countries in OHS issues?
A five-year international benchmarking study of construction health and safety in the USA and Australia suggests Australia performs relatively well in managing health and safety in construction.
However, there is still considerable room for improvement and international comparisons are fraught with difficulty as data collection and reporting methods are not always comparable.
Have there been any unexpected outcomes from your research? How did this come about?
Our research frequently produces unexpected results. Recent research has revealed that several strategies did not produce sustained changes to workers' health-related behaviour.
Project-based construction workers work very long hours and weekend work is standard. Workers are subjected to stressors like job security. This needs a social-ecological approach to health that addresses the root causes of the problem.
What has been the proudest moment in your research career so far?
When I returned to Australia, the construction workers at the site I had been working on thanked me for making their working environment safer, which made me extremely proud.
In 2007, I authored the Guide to Best Practice for Safer Construction with Tim Fleming and Professor Ron Wakefield (RMIT), which is being used at large projects such as the Port of Melbourne Port Capacity Project.
It has been downloaded 2206 times by people from 76 different countries and the guide also won the Engineers Australia National Engineering Excellence award in 2010, which I hope is evidence of its usefulness to industry.