More than two million people work in construction in Britain, making it the country’s biggest industry. It is also one of the most dangerous. In the last 25 years, over 2,800 people have died from injuries they received as a result of construction work. Many more have been injured or made ill.
Lord Bill McKenzie was appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2007, and has specific responsibility for policy on health and safety at work. Nicky Rogers of Master Builder magazine asked Lord Mckenzie to explain what plans are in place now to improve worker safety.
MB: What are the priorities for HSE construction division in the coming year?
Lord McKenzie: Last year, over half of the workers who died on construction sites worked in refurbishment, repair and maintenance. This year we aim to focus on the often poor safety standards of some refurbishment sites across Great Britain. Working at height and good site order will be the focus of inspections and contractors can expect strong enforcement action against those who ignore safety precautions. All inspections over the coming year will focus on a number of hazards as a matter of priority including preventing falls from height, maintaining good site order and the correct handling of asbestos.
Last year we asked Rita Donaghy* to look into the underlying causes of construction fatalities, and her report is due shortly. It’s important for us all – government, the regulators and the industry – to understand what more we need to do to reduce the death toll in construction. Too many lives are being lost and the report will give us a deeper understanding of the underlying factors. This sort of understanding will be particularly valuable to HSE as the national regulator.
MB: What steps will HSE take to improve enforcement against informal economy traders?
Lord McKenzie: Fairness and competition are undermined when traders operate in the informal economy. It results in an uneven playing field for legitimate business and often undermines health and safety provision for employees within those companies. Many traders operating in the informal economy are also prominent and prolific offenders. HSE will work closely with local authorities and continue to gather intelligence and to take strong enforcement action against those who flout the law.
MB: Can you update us on progress with the Administrative burdens reduction programme?
Lord McKenzie: The HSE remains on target to reduce unnecessary administrative burdens in health and safety legislation without reducing levels of health and safety protection. The Third Simplification Plan was published last year and the HSE has successfully delivered a number of simplification initiatives resulting in administrative burden savings of over £340 million to date.
MB: What is the Government doing to help promote a change in health and safety culture to reduce the number of accidents and deaths?
Lord McKenzie: Quite simply, good health and safety is good business and successful behavioural change is about change from the top down with active and visible involvement from managers at all levels. The recent new legislation – the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 – has increased the range of penalties and provided courts with greater sentencing powers for those who flout health and safety legislation. These changes will ensure that sentences can now be more easily set at a level to deter businesses from not taking their health and safety management responsibilities seriously and further encouraging managers and others to comply with the law.
MB: How does Britain’s health and safety record compare to other Member States?
Lord McKenzie: The rate of fatal injuries in construction in Britain, while too high, is roughly one third of the EU average - 3 per 100,000 workers compared with 8.8 per 100,000, looking at figures from 2005.
There is a similar picture when you look at over three day injuries. The EU average rate in 2005 was 6,069 per 100,000 workers while in Britain it was 1,580 per 100,000.
It is difficult to make direct comparisons between countries because reporting and recording systems differ. But even when you look at survey data the UK fares well. When the Fourth European Working Condition Survey was carried out, workers in 27 European countries were questioned. The UK had the lowest proportion of workers reporting that their jobs affected their health.
We should be proud of our performance, but we still must do better. It is unacceptable for even one person to die directly as a cause of their work, and equally unacceptable that significant numbers of workers are being injured and made ill on British construction sites. We must all continue to do what we can to prevent this.
MB: There has been some uncertainty about the future of the Construction Industry Advisory Committee (CONIAC). What assurances can you give that its future is secure?
Lord McKenzie: Following the merger of the Health and Safety Commission and the HSE, the HSE Chair looked at the various bodies that had been set up to advise the HSC, including the range of industry advisory committees. While the HSE Board is yet to give a definitive view about its needs, it has asked CONIAC to set a forward work plan which is intended to ensure that CONIAC’s work is aligned to HSE’s new strategy and priorities.
CONIAC has also been looking at its own future. It asked the industry for feedback about its structure and operation, and it received strong support – particularly for two elements of its work. First, that it is properly placed to advise government on policy matters; second, that it represents the broad range of interests of the construction industry through its tripartism and its representation of all sizes of interests from major contractors to the selfemployed and SMEs.
MB: Will the Government give a commitment to finance the Worker’s Safety Advisor scheme, and if not – why not?
Lord McKenzie: The evaluation of the Worker Safety Advisor Challenge Fund, which ran from 2004 to 2007, showed that this approach has some successes. The fund was available across all industry sectors, not just construction. While many of the projects funded increased worker involvement and showed progress on some indicators of improvement in health and safety, the costs outweighed the benefits. It would have cost some £40million to reach just 10 percent of smaller firms nationally.
There is no direct evidence that a WSA scheme would be more cost effective in construction and at present HSE’s Construction Division has no plans to finance such a scheme.
However, there has been support from the Strategic Forum for Construction and CONIAC’s SME Working Group for continuing the scheme in the construction industry. HSE has encouraged the industry to look at how an employer-funded WSA scheme in construction might be rolled out more widely, following a small scale project operated by the NFB and UCATT in the North East.
MB: Why doesn’t the Government give a commitment to adopt a single unified approach to pre-qualification?
Lord McKenzie: In terms of health and safety, an independent auditor was appointed on 1 May 2009 by the Safety Schemes in Procurement (SSIP) Competence Forum to audit the member businesses against agreed operating protocols, and to ensure the CDM Core Criteria are being properly and consistently applied, on an annual basis. The founder member accreditation schemes which will be audited first are CHAS, Safecontractor, Exor Management Services and NHBC.
Once the process is established a forum accreditation certificate will be issued by member companies to individual suppliers who meet the common assessment standards. This will provide the basis for mutual recognition of the health and safety assessment between the schemes, something that HSE is actively encouraging.
MB: Why isn’t HSE advice made freely available if it helps to reduce the number of accidents and deaths?
Lord McKenzie: HSE makes significant amounts of its information freely available through the HSE website, which contains the equivalent of nearly 30,000 pages, and through its 600 or so free leaflets.
MB: Shouldn’t the Government be focusing on the enforcement of existing health and safety legislation rather than introducing more legislation?
Lord McKenzie: Enforcement and inspection are important elements in a balanced programme of interventions that deliver successful health and safety outcomes. Other interventions include awareness-raising, media campaigns, supply chain initiatives and the provision of advice and guidance. Enforcing health and safety legislation remains an important part of HSE’s role and enforcement will be a key feature of the HSE’s new Strategy, expected to launch shortly.
MB: The Shattered Lives campaign is running again this year – what new initiatives will be introduced?
Lord Mckenzie: Research commissioned by the HSE has shown that many developers, especially at the smaller end of the property market, are unaware of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and, in particular, their duties as client under these Regulations. HSE has worked with key stakeholders to find the best way to engage with property developers to raise awareness of their duties and the first phase of this communications campaign was launched recently. Later this year, HSE will be running another intensive inspection initiative which will target roof-work as part the new small site strategy.
MB: Are young people more likely to be involved in accidents at work? If so, what special consideration will be given to them as they enter the construction industry as apprentices?
Lord McKenzie: There is some evidence that workers in the 16-19 age group may suffer a higher than average rate of accidents.
The construction industry uses a range of training methods, enhanced supervision and mentoring to keep young persons safe on site. Apprentices in particular, are closely monitored and are restricted in the range of work they are authorised to carry out early on in their placement. The HSE has also worked closely with the LSC and ConstructionSkills to produce new guidance for employers in construction who may wish to take young people who are still at school on work experience.