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Out-Law Analysis 5 min. read

Why building safety must be at the heart of rebuilding Ukraine

Embedding global best practices on building safety into projects for rebuilding Ukraine would not only provide for the safety of workers – it would help improve the quality of the country’s post-war built environment and deliver environmental and social benefits too.

There are two features of the building safety regime in England in particular that could be imported into rebuild Ukraine projects – to ensure designers and contractors meet competence requirements, and that a ‘golden thread’ of digital information is established and maintained.

An immediate benefit to worker safety

To build back better in Ukraine, there will need to be significant public and private sector investment, as well as a considerable mobilisation of engineering design, legal, financial, contracting and manufacturing capability.

Designers and contractors from across the globe will collaborate on the major projects that will need to be delivered – to not only restore Ukraine’s built environment once the conflict ends but ensure the country’s thrives too. Businesses from the US and Korea are among those already lined up to plan and deliver important infrastructure. The sheer number of projects involved requires a real family of nations.

While the scale of the opportunity in rebuilding Ukraine is only rivalled by a select number of other mega-projects globally, that scale, coupled with the complexity, means businesses are likely to turn to joint venture (JV) arrangements with other parties to not only create coalitions of the best capability but also to pool resources, such as people and technology, and share risks.

In building safety terms, bringing different companies from different countries together to collaborate on projects requires coordination in approaches to building safety – around the world, different cultures and standards apply on building safety, reflecting the history of regulation, culture and, regrettably, the tragedy experienced locally when building standards fail. This needs to be considered carefully in the context of rebuilding Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government and its international partners should consider how they can apply a goal setting standard on building safety to Ukraine reconstruction projects that leans on best practices in other jurisdictions.

In the UK, for example, employers in construction projects must satisfy themselves that their workforce has the necessary knowledge, skills, experience and behaviours for the job. They must ensure that their supply chain has the organisational competence to ensure the safety of the job, and to ensure that the finished project complies with the requirements of the building regulations. Appointments cannot be accepted unless the person accepting the appointment demonstrates their competence.

Similarly, in Australia, historical construction site accidents have led to the development over time of strong health and safety laws and culture. Employers are responsible for ensuring that workers have adequate training, skills and experience for the job and that a safe workplace is provided. Contractors must be registered for the type of work being performed. During construction and at completion of a building, the client and contractor must ensure that the requirements of the national building code and other relevant building legislation are met.

This approach allows individual trades and professions to develop competence and continuing professional development schemes which follow an overarching approach, but which can flex to the requirements of a particular discipline, and to recognise skills and experience developed across the globe. For trades, certification schemes such as CSCS provide a straightforward way to demonstrate that workers are trained for the job.

In the context of the loss of thousands of soldiers and civilians and significant displacement of millions of other people of working age that has arisen as result of the conflict in Ukraine, the legal obligations and core skills and competency requirements that apply in England and Australia offer a blueprint for the training and deployment of the truly international workforce that is likely to be involved in reconstructing Ukraine.

The application of such standards in a uniform way – whether through new legislation or contractual frameworks – would address the risk of different cultures and approaches being imposed in relation to building safety within individual reconstruction projects and across the entire suite of projects that will need to be delivered. While there is no way of completely eliminating the risk of accidents on construction sites, the importation of such high standards would enhance worker safety by reducing the risk of injury or death during the rebuilding process.

The broader benefits

The endorsement of international best practices on building safety can deliver other benefits for the reconstruction of Ukraine too.

At a basic level, the importation of core skills and competency requirements to Ukraine reconstruction projects would help ensure quality workmanship and – allied to another feature that could be imported from the building safety regime – limit the number of defects in building works that can lead to delay and disputes.

By recording the build and design as it changes, using digital asset information and the idea of a 'golden thread', the risk of defects arising diminishes. The ongoing repair and maintenance of buildings can be made much easier too, as problems can be pre-empted and proactively addressed.

In the context of the reconstruction of Ukraine, the existence of a golden thread of information for infrastructure assets could have benefits. This is because some of the international expertise brought to bear on projects will, in all likelihood, wane after projects conclude. The golden thread will record how assets were put together and why, offering a collective memory of how to revisit the assets or fix defects long after the individuals involved in their design and construction have moved on. This rich dataset, together with the transfer of knowledge and skills to Ukrainians in the ordinary building process, will leave a lasting legacy of social value too.

Best practices in building safety can also contribute to the decarbonisation agenda. It can promote the standardisation of processes and industrialised construction, and in turn help reduce waste – so prevalent in the construction sector currently that representatives of European industry have a plan to overhaul business models to address it.

The development of a golden thread of information – including through the operation of digital twins of infrastructure assets – also provides an opportunity to optimise design for energy efficiency purposes and lower long-term operational costs well before a spade goes in the ground, at a time of growing expectations globally that infrastructure asset owners and operators reduce greenhouse gas emissions in response to the climate crisis. It would help avoid an expensive retrofit of Ukraine’s built environment were Ukraine to accede to EU membership, as is currently envisaged, and required to meet EU standards – which are some of the highest globally in relation to decarbonisation.

In short, while Ukraine will need to strike a balance between enabling speedy development and ensuring an appropriate system of regulation governs reconstruction – including in respect of building safety – importing international best practices on building safety into rebuild Ukraine projects can not only provide for the safety of an international workforce but also be an enabler for the modernisation of the entire built environment and economy. A robust building safety regime and digital approach, coupled with an industrialised approach to manufacturing offsite, will also, if implemented at scale, speed up development.

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