CM comment: how can we make construction safer?

23 August 2012

Denise Chevin wonders what the best way is to tackle health and safety lapses on small sites.

The work was done in what appeared to be utter chaos, and it never seemed to occur to anyone on site to wear a hard hat or safety gear. So it came as little surprise to me or my neighbours when a wall collapsed at this domestic refurbishment and two builders left in an ambulance.

Happily, no one was seriously injured and the job now looks as if it’s proceeding in a slow, but at least more orderly fashion. But for those of us who don’t actually work on construction sites, incidents like this bring home the stark reality of what it’s still like for the many unfortunates employed on dodgy small sites. Where there’s no union representation, health and safety director, switched on client, or even basic common sense, building can resemble a game of Russian Roulette. 

The statistics thankfully show the industry is improving generally. Fatalities have fallen over the last 20 years – plateauing in the last three or four years Figures from the HSE show that 50 people died last year in construction. Far too many, it goes without saying, but improvement at least.

Among the larger firms, attitudes to health and safety have changed dramatically since then deputy prime minister John Prescott banged the table in 2001 after a sudden rise of fatalities. At the time, the health and safety executive hoped that if the majors put their house in order it would have a trickle-down effect to the rest of the sector. It’s debatable how much this has happened. As the HSE says on its website: most fatal injuries in the construction industry now occur on smaller building projects, involving refurbishment of existing homes and workplaces.

A report commissioned by UCATT in 2008 showed that 51% of construction deaths in 2007/08 were in companies that employed fewer than 50 workers, with more than half of these fatalities occurring in companies comprising five or less employees. So can anything be done to change this situation?

Many breaches of health and safety occur on small projects

The idea of harnessing Building Control officers in some way, as announced a couple of years ago, certainly makes sense on paper. Building Control officers have technical expertise, possess the clout, and are closer to the coal face in terms of domestic sites. But this arrangement is so loose as to have had little impact. And besides, local authority-employed Building Control officers are reluctant to be seen as the health and safety police for fear of sending business the way of private sector Building Control firms. So it’s not worth holding too much hope on that collaboration.

The only real answer is to try to catch more of those that breach safety laws and hit them with punative fines. Sounds harsh, I know. But the HSE is taking a step in the right direction. Controversially, from 1 October the HSE will recover the costs of investigating and inspecting health and safety breaches from the companies that committed them.

In a blitz earlier this year the HSE found that nearly one in five construction sites failed safety checks. Out of the 3,237 sites and 4,080 contractors, HSE inspectors found 581 sites where practices put workers at risk. They issued 870 enforcement notices and in 603 instances work had to stop immediately. The HSE is to charge its inspectors’ time at £124 an hour in addition to statutory fines. Breaches that resulted in a letter or email, but not a prohibition or improvement notice, would last about three quarters of a day and cost about £750. Inspections triggering an improvement or prohibition notice could cost £1,500.

It’s not the whole answer, but it’s a welcome move to try to up the safety level on smaller sites. Providing, of course, there is enough manpower to spot check them.

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