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Fatal attraction

Safety - Site blitzes

Thousands of construction sites have been blitzed by the Health & Safety Executive.Bernadette Redfern reports from the front line.

Health and safety inspector Norman Macritchie is meticulous in his work and passionate about what he does. 'I love my job, ' he says. He has the firm but fair manner of a schoolteacher and even when uncovering sites where very dangerous risks are being taken he remains calm.

Macritchie is an inspector based in the Health & Safety Executive's (HSE) Luton office, from where the 'FaTaL' campaign is being run (see box).

The safety push is focusing on the three most deadly construction activities - work at height, transport operations and the lifting of heavy loads.

Eight HSE inspectors work with Macritchie to cover Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. 'At any one time there are typically 2,500 to 3,000 active sites, ' he reports.

During this blitz the inspectors expect to have covered 1,200 sites.

'I am not looking to nitpick, ' says Macritchie. 'We are looking at risk in a strategic manner, not by confronting individuals but by asking management why individuals are not following site rules or why site rules are not working.'

Macritchie's first port of call is a new £95M genetic research centre, the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus at Hinxton in Cambridgeshire. Although construction manager Garry Blackshaw, who works for project manager Mace, insists that the company always enforces stringent health and safety measures on site, he admits that, here, the client's awareness of and enthusiasm for promoting good practice has helped.

'It is rare to get such a high level of support for implementation of health and safety measures. They have never baulked at any extra costs, ' Blackshaw says.

'On this site you can see that there is very good security, which is fundamental, ' says Macritchie. It is also praised for having clear pedestrian and vehicle segregation with crossing points and good control of fire risk. Every month the safest subcontractor on site gets a cash prize, and £20 rewards are handed out to individuals who are working particularly safely.

But the next site Macritchie visits, a housing development, is not working to such high standards. 'I am getting a good first impression - the scaffolding is well laid out, ' he says. But he finds he has spoken too soon.

Scaffolding has been erected around the outside of the houses to prevent falls, but an inspection of one house on the site reveals that measures to prevent people from falling inward are missing. The site manager says there are beanbags to put inside the buildings, but in an effort to work faster they have not actually been using them. The manager agrees to a voluntary cessation of work until the beanbags are installed.

Things suddenly get worse when Macritchie looks at a neighbouring house and sees something that forces him to stop work immediately and serve a prohibition notice on the roofing subcontractor. On the top deck of the scaffolding, a labourer has balanced an old pallet against a wall and is using it as a makeshift ladder to reach roof height. There is not even a chock to prevent the edge of the pallet slipping away under the worker's weight; the scaffold guard rails do not go above waist height.

Were the pallet to slip or break the man would be pitched straight over the railings, says Macritchie. 'This site has had previous advice about working at heights above 2m but is still not following it.'

The worker is young - barely out of school - and he hangs his head uncomfortably while Macritchie explains the problem to him. Nobody had talked health and safety issues through with him and it is hard to tell whether he feels more upset at having been caught being stupid, or at the consequences if his ad-hoc ladder had collapsed.

In his calm and steady way Macritchie takes the young roofer's boss through the notice.

This orders all work to stop until a schedule has been followed demanding the company identify why unsafe measures were being used, review and amend the risk assessment, seek advice from the principal contractor, retrain staff as appropriate and implement new measures to prevent a repeat of the safety breach.

The inspector must then be told when these measures have been implemented, and receive written details of precautions taken to prevent a repeat breach of safety practice.

Most contractors own up to their safety failings with a shrug, but every now and then tempers flare, Macritchie says.

It is generally company directors who escalate a safety warning into a shouting match, he adds.

On this particular day, after visiting four sites, Macritchie has served one prohibition notice, which he says is about average. Although no heated words have been exchanged, the job clearly carries a degree of tension.

And before leaving the site Macritchie shows how he deals with it, demonstrating his skill on the chanter - the pipe section for a set of bagpipes - that he keeps in his car. This and the tape of Gaelic folk music he plays while driving between sites are his secrets for staying calm.

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