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Designs for life

News analysis - Safety

The National Audit Office believes designers must do more to improve the construction industry's poor health and safety record.

Antony Oliver asks why.

THE FACTS cannot be ignored. In 2002/3, some 71 construction workers were killed - 31% of all work-related deaths in the UK.

Another 4,780 suffered a major injury.

The National Audit Office's recent (NAO) report into the work of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) says construction delivers 'the highest rate of major injuries per 100,000 employees and over three times the average for the main industry sectors'.

And without question the NAO has decided which group within the industry must be targeted if this situation is to be turned around.

'The HSE has found that many designers show little or no interest in or understanding of the health and safety implications of their work, despite their explicit duties under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM), ' it says. 'We found that the overwhelming majority of stakeholders supported this view.'

NAO goes on: 'Many designers lack knowledge of their responsibilities under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994, with some believing they do not have any duties.'

A sense of incredulity swept through MPs on the Public Accounts Committee as they grilled HSE chief inspector of construction Kevin Myers and his boss HSE director general Dr Timothy Walker this week. How could designers possibly be content to produce unsafe designs? How could HSE be doing its job properly if professionals did not relate to the welfare of their fellow workers?

But while Myers accepted that the HSE had much work to do to reach designers he argued that the NAO's comments did not point to failure. 'It is not fair to say we are failing, ' he said. 'But it is true that we have not been as successful at getting the message across to designers.'

Myers' comments referred to the NAO's recommendation that the HSE should build on its current education and enforcement initiatives by 'tackling designers who have a key role to play in promoting health and safety in construction'. This policy was bearing fruit and the NAO was keen to see effort extended to target designers by 'raising the profile of health and safety at the design stage'.

No one disputes that the continued poor safety performance of the construction industry is a worry - not least because it comes despite a huge amount of effort.

As the NAO explains: 'In January 2003, the HSE reported that the rate of fatal and major injuries within the industry was 'at best falling slowly' and that 'for the present, factual evidence of industry-wide improvement remains hard to come by'.'

And concern over this continuing situation last week prompted construction minister Nigel Griffiths to call for new industry wide action, spearheaded by Strategic Forum chairman Peter Rogers. After all, three years ago the industry promised John Prescott's construction safety summit that it would achieve a 40% improvement in safety by 2004/5. In reality we have seen much less.

But amid the gloom there is hope. The NAO report does contain much good news, pointing out that the UK accident rate is in fact the second lowest within the European Union and is considerably less than the average. And there is evidence that the situation is perhaps at last improving.

'In January 2003, the HSE reported that the incidence rate of fatal and major injuries had fallen by 12% in comparison with the baseline for 1999/2000, a rate substantially above the 1% year-onyear all industry reduction, ' says the NAO.

Myers is far from complacent about these figures, particularly in light of the 40% reduction by 2004/5 target pledged by industry at Prescott's summit.

But he is convinced that neither the problem nor the solution lies solely at his door. The key to continuing this improvement in performance, he says, is not for the HSE to patrol with a big stick and bureaucracy. In fact it never has been. Myers says he must continue to work with the industry to win improvement.

'We are working to provide advice and guidance; and the approach we are taking is very specifically not about box ticking and paperwork, ' he explains.

'We are looking for real solutions with real benefits to save lives. We have always understood that we need to engage with designers and engineers in their language; CDM is being revised in recognition of some of these issues.'

The message coming from both Myers and the NAO is that the industry itself - and that includes the design side - needs to accept its responsibility and start delivering improvements in health and safety. Industry cannot continue to rely on the HSE to tell it what to do.

Clearly there is still much resistance from designers. And there is certainly suspicion about much of the HSE's current enforcement policy.

Yet it is a fact that when NCE surveyed industry attitudes to health and safety ahead of Prescott's summit in 2001, a staggering 75% of designers said they could do more to design out health and safety risks during construction.

Three years and much publicity later, it must be hard to comprehend NAO reports that designers and clients are still failing to take their safety responsibilities seriously. But statistics showing that 60% of fatalities on site can be traced to poor design cannot be ignored by the profession.

Myers is committed to changing this but emphasises - contrary to the view of some, following the recent failed prosecution of consultant Andrew Allen (NCE 13 May) - his desire for education ahead of prosecution.

He points out that the HSE is increasingly running health and safety awareness raising blitzes with designers where 'the emphasis has been strongly on education not enforcement'.

But he is also clear that this softly, softly approach will never obviate HSE's responsibilities to enforce the law.

'If we come across what we believe is a serious breach of the law then we must enforce, ' explains Myers. 'This is our role and our responsibility and the society, industry, and victims and their families rightly expect us to do so.

'We are not undertaking a 'relentless search for human examples' to prosecute and there is no evidence that this is the case, ' says Myers. 'We are taking a sensible approach - we are working with industry, revising the regulations, running awareness days, have an CDM internet help group and a designer website, are working with others to produce useful guidance.'

That is not to say the HSE is without its limitations. The need to focus its effort on key sectors - construction being one of them - prompted a restructure in 2002.

The Construction Priority Programme was born and under it the new construction division created with Myers in charge of an expanded construction brief.

Its policy, explains Myers, has been to operate across a number of broad roles - to advise, partner, cajole, support and of course where appropriate enforce.

With just 150 inspectors across the UK it has had to think carefully about how to maximize value from its resources.

Its favoured tools lately have included a programme of health and safety awareness days and a series of 'safety blitzes' around the UK. These have had a direct impact on sites but also, as evidence from research in the North West showed recently, on the design side of the business.

Yet the fact remains - a fact repeated pointed out by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee this week - that the targets set by industry and supported by the HSE are unlikely to be hit.

The NAO makes clear the challenge: 'The HSE needs to work with the industry to translate these targets into more tangible and measurable goals, which help to promote increased responsibility within the supply chain and at site level.'

Myers is comfortable with this statement. He is clear about just how much his team is able and expected to do alone. He is not, as he repeatedly explains, responsible for running contractors sites or designers' businesses.

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