REUTERS | Alex Domanski

Health and safety in the construction industry: under the spotlight again?

The latest HSE figures show that fatalities on construction sites rose in 2010 (from 41 to 50) for the first time in four years.

This was not a revelation: every week the industry press reports a serious accident on a construction site somewhere in the country, but it still shocked me. With all the recent focus on health and safety in the industry, why is it still such a dangerous place to work? Fragmentation is perhaps one of the biggest challenges to health and safety in the industry.

Client leadership on health and safety

Clients have to take the initiative on health and safety matters, setting high standards at the outset and promoting behavioural change at the top of the industry. The recent CIC guidance emphasises this. In my view, one of its most important messages is that clients not only have a legal obligation to ensure the well-being of all those working on their project, they have a moral obligation to do so.

Many clients have actively embraced this and the ODA is a good example. Various innovative health and safety practices and procedures have been put in place on the Olympic Park site to minimise accidents. The reportable accident rate at the Park, a construction site with over 12,000 workers, is a third of the industry average for all workplaces. At the beginning of June, the ODA reported that after three million working hours there had been no serious injuries. The recent fatality at the park was as a result of natural causes.

However, change can be a slow process. Network Rail has recently been criticised by the ORR for weaknesses in its safety culture and under reporting of accidents and injuries. Network Rail is already addressing this and has launched a cultural change programme, which is specifically aimed at health and safety. The ORR report also noted the “constructive and positive engagement by senior Network Rail managers on health and safety issues” over the last year.

Contractors and the supply chain

Many of the UK’s large contractors have put in place stringent requirements in relation to health and safety – zero harm/zero tolerance policies – which are passed on to the supply chain. This has largely contributed to the fall in construction fatalities since 2006/7.

However, statistics suggest that it is the smaller firms, and the smaller projects (especially refurbishment) that account for around 60-70 per cent of the fatalities.  So, what can be done to address this? The HSE is encouraging the industry to “help itself”, asking major contractors to help smaller companies outside its immediate supply chain. This sounds more like an ideal rather than a workable solution at the moment. Corporate social responsibility may have a part to play in encouraging larger firms to take on this role in the future but realistically, in the current economic climate, main contractors have many other difficult issues to deal with.

Too much/too little regulation?

This year in particular, the government has focused on reform of health and safety laws, aiming to simplify the current raft of health and safety legislation and guidance, so as to reduce the burden on businesses (see, for example, Lord Young’s Common sense, common safety report and the subsequent progress reports, the government’s Good for Everyone report and the Red Tape Challenge). The HSE’s approach to the construction industry will also change – it will shift the focus of health and safety enforcement activity away from businesses that do the right thing, to concentrate on higher risk areas and deal with serious breaches of health and safety regulations.

To the extent that this helps smaller businesses, clients, contractors and sub-contractors to understand their responsibilities and what they have to do in terms of health and safety, this is a positive step. However, the HSE will need to ensure that it advises, assists and properly supports these SMEs and that its resource is not simply focused on prosecution. This will be a major challenge given the withdrawal of funds from the HSE, as part of the government’s cost-cutting initiative.

The “cost” of health and safety

There are additional costs associated with safer methods of working and the benefits of good health and safety management may appear intangible to some. This, together with the current climate of low tender prices, small margins and contractor insolvencies, may have contributed to some in the industry cutting corners and losing sight of the importance of health and safety as an integral part of any risk management strategy. But at what cost a human life? Strong client leadership is seen by many as the key to overcoming these challenges and creating a positive culture and behaviour towards health and safety but, in practice, it is difficult to see this happening across the board.

Fragmentation is the real challenge

Health and safety in the construction industry has never really been out of the spotlight and that, in itself, is a positive thing. Large, sophisticated clients are leading the way in promoting positive attitudes and behaviour towards health and safety. Main contractors are doing the same with their zero tolerance policies and insistence that their immediate supply chain adopts these policies. However, fragmentation of the industry means that this can only go so far. There are many small, relatively unsophisticated, one-off clients, especially on domestic projects, and small contractors or sub-contractors at the bottom of the supply chain. It is unrealistic to expect them to be able to do the same as the large clients and contractors. They simply do not have the resource or the expertise and it is in relation to these small businesses and small projects that the HSE needs to be at its most effective. Above all else, fragmentation is perhaps one of the biggest challenges to health and safety in the industry.

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