Litigation overload is threatening to upset the slow but steady progress being made on health and safety, says Martin Barnard.
As if there's not enough to worry about on a construction site, there is more legislation on the horizon. This time it is the UK response to the European Union Work at Height Directive which was put out for public consultation at the start of the year.
What does it mean for the construction industry, and are we as a profession prepared for it?
In truth, our understanding of the detail of current legislation governing work at heights - the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974), the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations and the Construction (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulation - is vague when it comes to the crunch.
Take, for example, the phrase 'reasonably practicable' (or was that possibly reasonable or practicably possible? ). The Health & Safety at Work Act states engineers must ensure so far as is reasonably practicable that plant, equipment and systems/ methods of work are safe. What does that actually mean, though?
When directors and senior managers sit the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) 'Safety for Senior Executives' test I set them, very few have a clear understanding of what this means, legally.
If they are struggling to get to grips with what is already out there, heaven help them decipher the language of a whole new set of directives.
Then there is the issue of relevance. The new Work at Height Regulations will follow the catchily titled Provision & Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) and Lifting Operations & Lifting Equipment Regulations (LOLER) in being applicable across every facet of UK industry, be it in a school, factory, farm or on a construction site. There is no doubt the construction industry is not alone in needing to improve its health and safety record. But is such a broad brush approach really sensible?
I am concerned as to whether the construction industry is ready for further generic legislation. While PUWER and LOLER slip effortlessly off the construction professional's tongue, I suspect few really know what they require, and fewer still can relate the generic nature of PUWER and LOLER to the specifics tasks carried out on site.
Meanwhile, in with the new and out with the old. One consequence of the new regulations is that much of the Construction (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulation will be repealed. Whatever its strengths or weaknesses, CHSW is at least familiar.
Having another separate set of regulations will just add to the legislative minefield which already proves a challenge to even the most willing advocate of improving health and safety practice on site. Those less bothered will probably find it a real turn-off, and continue the sad trend of 'managing safety in fear and ignorance'.
Consultation on the Work at Heights Directive closes on 2 April.
INFOPLUS The consultation document can be found at www. hse. gov. uk/ consult/condocs/cd192. pdf