Obituary: Derek Smyth

Derek Smyth, who has died aged 65, was a well-respected engineer best known for his tireless campaign to improve Hong Kong’s appalling site safety record.

If there was one man who can be said to have contributed the most to improving the safety record at a contractor in Hong Kong, that man would be Derek Smyth, an executive director at Gammon Construction.

In his capacity as company safety czar, Smyth introduced the “Step Change” safety programme and was instrumental in initiating innovative safety management systems.

His work on improving safety on site was such that Gammon’s accident incident rate plunged from 30 to 8.8 per thousand workers in the six years to 2006.

That drastic fall in the occurrence of accidents enabled the company to save HK$22.6 million in premiums for employees’ compensation insurance based on the 2006 claims record.

“To put it bluntly: good safety is no brainer, whichever way one looks at it,” Smyth said in his acceptance speech on receiving the Golden Helmet Award for safety from the charity The Lighthouse Club in March 2007.

He never missed an opportunity, despite the general improvement and awareness of site safety in the industry, to remind contractors and construction professionals who attended his talks and seminars of the fatality statistics.

According to statistics in recent Legislative Council papers, in 2008 there were 20 fatalities on sites, a significant drop from the 27 recorded for 2007.

The number of deaths continued to drop to 19 and 9 for 2009 and 2010 respectively but has unfortunately climbed back to 23 cases in 2011 and 24 in 2012.

Derek Smyth   (British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong)

Derek Smyth (British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong)

Aside from his safety duties, Smyth also set up the Sustainability Department at Gammon which publishes an annual sustainability report for the company, the first contractor to do so in Hong Kong.

A civil engineer by profession from the United Kingdom, Smyth came to Hong Kong in 1980 after working in the Middle East and Africa.

He then spent most of, if not, all his career in Hong Kong with Gammon Construction, now owned 50/50 by British construction giant Balfour Beatty and Singapore based British conglomerate Jardine Matheson.

However he was not involved heavily in the operational side of the company in civil or building works but more on the supporting side such as design, supply chain, environment, quality control and risk management.

Smyth retired as executive director for health safety environment and quality in 2008 but was retained by Gammon as a consultant.

Aside from being an active member of the executive committee of the Lighthouse Club and being involved in many other charities, Smyth served as director of the Business Environmental Council and chairman of the Construction Industry Group of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

He also previously held posts in the Hong Kong Construction Association and the Provisional Construction Industry Co-ordination Board.

Steve Tennant, incumbent chairman of the executive committee of The Lighthouse Club, remembered Smyth as a cheerful and energetic fellow.

“He was always well tanned,” Tennant said.

“Derek was a much respected professional held in high esteem by everyone – always affable and generous with his time,” a construction cost consultant said.

“He was the driving force behind the HKCA’s Vision 2020 document co-authored by the members of the BCC’s CIG and published in June 2012,” he added.

Smyth passed away in his sleep on 12 October.

He leaves behind his South African wife Danielle, five children and 11 grand-children.

Derek Victor Smyth, born 14 November 1947, died 12 October 2013

Danny Chung


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