Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Debate Responsibility for site safety

Main contractors run construction sites, but health and safety laws do not necessarily make them entirely responsible for accidents.

This week we ask: Should the principal contractor take legal responsibility for everyone's safety on site?


John Anderson, independent health and safety consultant.

The present HSE discussion document Revitalising health and safety in construction seeks ideas to significantly improve the health and safety record of our industry. Making significant improvements needs radical changes in the way things are undertaken at the moment.

Since 1974, employers have had to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their own employees but in the fragmented and complex world of site construction this now seems a distinctly second best arrangement.

Where the CDM regulations apply, the principal contractor is presently given powers to 'give reasonable directions' to the other contractors, and has to implement the construction phase health and safety plan which 'helps ensure' the health and safety of employees, the self-employed and the public.

Ensuring safety in an effective manner calls for skills, knowledge, strategic vision, effective implementation of policies and procedures, leadership and focused responsibility. Giving the principal contractor the legal duty for the safety of everyone who is at work on his site is a logical and worthwhile step forward from the present position.

For the principal contractor :

lHe will be in a position to formulate and enforce his own site rules appropriate to the project.

lHe will be in a stronger position to insist on the priority of health and safety when he is placing work with his subcontractors.

lHe will be in a better position to remove persons or contractors who do not work safely.

lCo-operation between contractors on health and safety matters is certain to be more effective as there will be only one 'controlling mind'.

lHis leadership on all matters of site health and safety will be clearly recognised by all, including the client, the project's designers; the planning supervisor; the HSE and the public.

Why did nobody think of this great idea before?


Andy Sneddon, health and safety director, Construction Confederation

There is clearly a case for consolidating the multitude of legal duties relating to health and safety on construction, and the principal contractor has a key role to play. However, it is difficult to see how performance could be improved unless the overriding commercial drivers are the focus of any changes.

On this basis I would seek to strengthen the legal accountabilities of construction clients.

The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 and various subsidiary regulations, quite rightly aim to address a complex employment environment. Unfortunately, this often descends into pointless duplication on site. This can frustrate principal contractors' attempts to establish the definitive arrangements that are a fundamental implication of the CDM Regulations.

For those principal contractors unwilling to take control, this state of affairs provides a convenient excuse for abdicating their legal responsibilities.

Principal contractors do need greater power to impose consistent arrangements on projects, but unless they are appointed on the basis of their ability and willingness to do this properly, reinforcing their legal duties will be pointless.

Clients must be legally accountable, because the establishment of an integrated site team can deliver effective health and safety co-ordination.

If, without the muddle caused by convenient intermediaries like planning supervisors, they have an overriding legal accountability for health and safety, I believe we will see real progress.

With clients feeling the weight of the law, the supply chain would at last experience real demand for health and safety solutions. With real demand principal contractors and other suppliers could market their health and safety innovation and commitment alongside value for money.

The HSE's current proposal to transfer the planning supervisor's duties to the client would be a welcome step. The experience of many in construction is that the planning supervisor is a convenient dumping ground for client accountability. We need to start somewhere and this is as good a point as any.

The facts lThe Health & Safety Executive (HSE) aims to cut fatal and major industry accident rates in construction by 40% by 2005 and 66% by 2010.

lHSE also wants to reduce the number of working days lost per 100,000 workers through work related illness by 10% by 2004 and 50% by 2010.

lConstruction workers are six times more likely to be killed at work than other workers according to the HSE.

lSeventy nine people died on construction sites in 2001/2 compared to 106 in the previous year.

INFOPLUS The HSE has published a discussion document on plans to reform health and safety law.

To see a copy visit www. hse. gov. uk Consultation ends on 31 December.

lSee Martin Barnard page 22.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.