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Teaching construction workers to train and think like top athletes – Site Safe

Construction company CEO Steve Barker noticed there were a lot of similarities between the extremely physical nature of many construction jobs and high-performance sports, and that, unlike athletes, workers did not train for the extreme physical activity they were doing onsite.

“Many of our construction team play rugby or other sports on the weekends. You ask them about doing a warmup before the game, they’ll say ‘of course’,” says Barker, the chief executive of national construction company First Principles Constructors (FPC).

“They would then go out and play the equivalent of eight games during one workday without warming up.”

What FPC did to fix this situation saw the company become a finalist for the Mental Health and Wellbeing Award in Site Safe’s 2023 Construction Health, Safety and Wellbeing awards. The Mental Health and Wellbeing Award recognises outstanding approaches to support the mental health and wellbeing of construction workers, their colleagues, whānau, and friends.

Barker says he could have hired experts from the corporate world to develop a wellbeing programme, but it would not have worked so well.

“High-performance sport is very relatable to people working in the construction industry.

What we did was bring in Tradie Athlete who come with a hands-on sporting background. The team onsite can relate to that.

Our belief is that if you could stop one of our workers hurting themselves, getting a sore back, physically burning out or damaging their mental health, then the programme has been a success.”

Site Safe Chief Executive Brett Murray says the way FPC and Tradie Athlete worked together is yet another example of innovative approaches to health and safety being adopted by the construction industry.

“It’s important the construction industry reduces the wear and tear on workers’ bodies and their minds because, right now, the country needs a strong construction industry.”

Tradie Athlete is the brainchild of Dr Andy Reid who has over 20 years’ experience in sports and exercise physiology, including seven years in the leadership group of New Zealand’s High Performance Cycling programme culminating with their most successful Olympic Games in London 2012.

Tradie Athlete applies the same methods used in this programme to train physical workers to be like athletes – to move like them, eat and drink like them, recover like them and sleep like them.

On FPC project sites, the Tradie Athlete programme involves 60-second warmups before physical activity, ‘fuelling up’ to maintain energy levels including a supply of healthy natural food onsite, training sessions focusing on quality sleep and training teams to deescalate and cope with stressful situations in and out of work.

Barker says FPC wanted to take a comprehensive approach, focusing on both physical health and mental health to give people a set of skills they can learn and apply across everything, their whole lives.

“What do you go to work for? Most of us go to work for our families.”

Since it was introduced to FPC’s workers in 2019, the Tradie Athlete programme has evolved into the Sophrosyne Performance-led “comprehensive staff fitness programme”. This approach helps create a workforce that is both psychologically and physically fit so that they have the ability to focus, to learn, and to perform.

One of the programme’s key observations is that athletes train more than they perform while workers do the opposite. They work long hard hours without training or conditioning.

After an initial focus on workers on the tools, the programme now includes engineers, designers, project managers, site managers, and foremen, aimed at improving effectiveness across the organisation, educating everyone on the foundations of high-performance.

Hemi Thompson admits he didn’t look after himself when he started out as a tradie. The supervisor for one of FPC’s subcontractors says the Tradie Athlete programme has made a big difference to his life in general, including at home and at work.

“I’ve now got a lot of energy and mentally I feel good about myself.”

Barker admits the programme is not for everyone.

“Each of us is unique and not every approach aligns to your identity. By taking a holistic approach to engaging with our workers meant that everyone has an opportunity to take something positive and helpful away from the programme.”


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