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"Whistle Blowing: Ethical Obligation or Career Risk?"

Whistle blowing – would you dare?


In common with many sectors the construction industry has a poor record when it comes to looking after whistle blowers. But what exactly is whistle blowing? Whistle blowing is: Speaking out to the media or the public on malpractice, misconduct, corruption, or mismanagement witnessed in an organisation. Which in construction could involve such things as improper, unsafe or illegal construction activities.

Traditionally there has been little protection for whistle blowers and because of this, problems have often been concealed rather than solved. A case in point is asbestos and lung disease as a link was clearly established as early as 1924. In the early 1970s I worked on sites where it was common to see joiners cutting, with a hand saw and drilling asbestos sheet on site, without any form of personal protection equipment as at the time, asbestos was a major form of fire protection. A recent study indicates that after ship repairing, construction has the highest rate of work-related asbestosis and lung cancer and yet it was 1993 before asbestos was finally banned in building products. The reason why asbestos continued to be used was that even now whistle blowing is not for the feint hearted as often whistle blowers have been the subject of victimisation, threats, bullying and dismissal. There have been many cases of whistle blowers in the construction industry being black-listed and labelled troublemakers and never working again in construction. In May 2019 a long running case against seven large and well-known construction companies who blacklisted workers was settled with a £1.9 million compensation agreement. Organisations have been encouraged to establish and publicise internally whistle blowing policies but, it is not mandatory and construction still lags other sectors often leaving it up to trades unions to pursue matters. Any whistle blowing policy should aim to: 

  • encourage staff to feel confident in raising serious concerns,

  • provide avenues for staff to raise those concerns and receive feedback,

  • ensure staff receive a response to their concerns and

  • reassure staff will be protected from possible reprisals or victimisation is any disclosure has been made in good faith.

So, here’s the million-dollar question – would you stick you head above the parapet and blow the whistle if you saw work being carried out in an unsafe manner? Answers on a small post card please to…

Duncan Cartlidge FRICS

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