There is a growing concern within the Highways industry that road worker abuse is affecting mental health, health and safety, recruitment, and skills retention in the sector. Here, our CEO, Stewart Millington, reflects on the event, the issue and the bigger picture of an increasingly vocal lobby to tackle the problem.
Just imagine going out to work each day, often in hazardous conditions and foul weather, working hard to carry out critical repairs, maintenance or improvements on the roads and, instead of getting respect for all of that, finding yourself on the receiving end of verbal abuse, or threat of physical abuse.
As a relative newbie to the highways industry, I was shocked and horrified by the tales of abuse I heard at the Safer Highways Community Interest Company Stamp It Out event this week. According to figures from Balfour Beatty plc shared at the event, there are 600 incidents of abuse towards highways operatives every week in the UK, with one in ten operatives experiencing physical abuse while at work last year. Two thirds of highways operatives have experienced verbal abuse while doing their job, and one in five have had objects thrown at them!
The result of all of this? A hard job made even harder by unnecessary and unwarranted unpleasantness, which has led to mental health issues for a quarter of those who have experienced it.
It’s hard to imagine a work environment where this could be tolerated, but, sadly, in the highways sector, abuse has been so endemic for so many years that it has become perceived by many as just another occupational hazard.
The ubiquitous nature of the problem was brought home to me during the talk by Phil Clifton, Managing Director – Highways at Balfour Beatty plc. He recounted how this has been an issue since the very beginning of his career, and he remembers being subjected to verbal abuse and having things thrown at him, from day one, while being unable to do anything but accept that this was an inevitable and unavoidable part of the job.
And of course, highways operatives not only have to deal with the physical and psychological impact of receiving the abuse, they also have to exercise challenging levels of self-control to avoid retaliating, because retaliation to a hostile member of the public could prompt complaints, disciplinary action and an untimely end to their career.
The good news is that there was not only consensus in the room at the Stamp It Out Summit that something has to be done about this issue, but there is consensus across the sector too. In addition to the national Stamp It Out campaign, the Expect Respect campaign, has been launched by the Integrated Programme Alliance (IPA), which delivers vital network improvement works across Birmingham and was established by Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Highways Ltd, together with Kier Highways, Arcadis, Tarmac, Highway Traffic Management(HTM) and WJ Group. It aims to tackle the 465 incidents of road worker abuse reported in Birmingham alone in the past 3 years. This campaign will share real stories of abuse experienced by highways operatives at work. As the campaign points out, this scourge on our industry is about much more than statistics: it’s about real people who want to earn a living, do a good job and get home safely to their families at the end of their shift.
As a company that employs operatives to install our #BG800 barrier, as well as a business that is entirely focused on safety for those who work on and use our roads, this is an issue that’s close to our hearts at Highway Care Ltd. We are proud to add our voice to the lobby for positive change on this issue, and part of that change will come about from articulating the issue and encouraging those who experience abuse to call it out and report it. We must not be a sector that expects and accepts abuse as an inevitable part of the working week.
We need a joined-up approach to communicating the problem and playing our part in tackling it. Like most people who work in the highways industry, I am also a road user, and can get frustrated when my journey is extended or interrupted by road works. But there is no excuse for that frustration to be expressed as abuse, and we need to support our teams, encourage them to report any incidents and protect them from harm.
It was great to see a conversation like this at the heart of government, with standing-room-only attendance from across the industry. I suspect most of the delegates left the event, as I did, with their eyes wide open to the issue, and fire in their belly to do something about it. For me, that’s not just a determination to protect our team, but also a commitment to work collaboratively with industry colleagues on a zero tolerance approach.