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Safety: what do you think?

A Government summit next month will try to resolve construction's record on safety. We cannot all be there, so this is your chance to have your say in our exclusive questionnaire survey.

News just before Christmas that fatalities had hit a half year high at 62 deaths prompted the Government to call an urgent summit for the 27 February.

Construction minister Nick Raynsford and his boss, the deputy prime minister John Prescott, believe that construction's safety record is now untenable. The safety summit will be charged with creating an action plan for the whole industry to bring about a sea change in construction's attitude to issues of health and safety. And the Government wants to hear what you think.

'I urge all NCE 's readers to come forward with proposals for the safety summit, ' construction minister Nick Raynsford said this week (see News).

The Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions is inviting a select few hundred to the summit but in case you are not on the guest list, this is the chance to make your views known by completing the questionnaire overleaf.

We will pass the results on to Prescott and Raynsford to help with their deliberations on how to change construction's safety culture.

So what do you think could make a difference?

Would a shorter working week have an impact? Does the use of contract and temporary staff reduce safety standards on site?

Do consultants need to learn more about designing for safe construction?

Does the Health & Safety Executive need to make more inspections, prosecute more often and demand that courts increase fines?

HSE reckons it is already pretty tough on people. 'Forty percent of our prosecutions and 50% of our prohibition notices are to do with construction, ' says chief inspector of construction Kevin Myers. 'And prosecutions are very time consuming.

Five percent more would mean 30% fewer resources for inspections and we would rather focus on preventing accidents and deaths from happening in the first place.'

Of HSE's 1500-strong inspection force 115 are focused on construction. 'And what public servant would say they didn't need more resources?' Myers asks.

Fines are very inconsistent, he says. Last Friday a construction death warranted a £25,000 fine from the courts while the loss of a paper mill worker's arm attracted a penalty of £350,000.

The advent of the Construction Design & Management (CDM) regulations five years ago had an immediate effect on the industry's traditionally bad safety record but that has reversed recently. Myers puts this down to the surge in work and the skills shortage.

'Pressure on the industry makes things worse. Unskilled labour is brought on site to fill the gaps, managers are running sites beyond their competence and everyone is stretched.'

Myers, along with many other safety experts NCE spoke to, believes the key to change lies with clients. 'I hope one of the things that comes out of the summit is that clients will not issue contracts to companies who do not employ people that are demonstrably competent.'

Under CDM, clients have a legal obligation to do that but many still shunt it to one side in pursuit of a lower price or shorter contract time.

'A large number of clients don't understand what their duties are and even those that do find ways to get out of them, ' says Symonds' Martin Barnard.

The facts

There were 62 construction fatalities in the first six months of the 2000/2001 recording year. This compared to 39 in the same period the year before when the annual total hit 86.

In 1999/2000 there were 5040 non-fatal major accidents and 10,292 'over three day injuries'.

Compared to the average for all industries, construction workers are five times more likely to be killed, two times more likely to sustain a major injury and two times more at risk of ill health.

In 1998 the EU average for fatalities per 100,000 construction workers was 13.3; the UK figure was 5.6.

50% of UK deaths are caused by falls from height - off roofs, ladders and scaffolds. Being struck by plant, crushed by collapsing structures and being electrocuted are also high on the list.

Over half of those who die have been on site for less than two weeks.

600 a year die from asbestos related diseases aquired over time on site.

40% of construction workers suffer from muscoloskeletal problems.

30% suffer from dermatitis.

Eyewitness: a contractor's story

'I worked for a main contractor for five years and correct safety procedure was always being drilled in to us. But with the inevitable time constraints and the need to reach programme goals, the practice was often far from the ideal.

For example, while working on an upgrade to a wastewater treatment works, I once found myself clambering into a 3.5m deep manhole to check which direction the outflow pipe was flowing.

This action was taken despite being on the site safety team, and knowing full well that a confined space certificate as well as a gas detector and winch were required. But it enabled the ground working sub contractor to continue.

All operatives starting on big sites now have a safety induction. But it is sometimes difficult to get the message across and telling operatives to wear hard hats and high visibility vests can become a full time job. I have seen a foreman come to blows with an operative for continued refusal to wear a hard hat.

Experienced ground workers often do not take kindly to being ordered out of a hole because it is not properly supported. Unless the contractor's site safety team is strong willed there is a temptation to turn a blind eye, especially if the contract is falling behind.'

Eyewitness: a consultant's story 'I worked on site in North Yorkshire for about a year on a long pipeline contract. Working for a consultant, I was responsible for checking the contractor's workmanship quality but also for ensuring that safety procedures were being upheld.

While the contractor's management always told us 'safety was everyone's responsibility', it was often the last thing on the subcontractors' minds. Being paid by piece, the priority was simply to get as many pipes into the ground as quickly as they could.

I once approached a labourer using a circular saw to cut a ductile iron pipe without any goggles and asked him to wear eye protection. His initial reaction was to tell me that his goggles were in his van two miles up the road and he was not about to stop work just to go and get them.

But he added that he could not see properly in goggles anyway as they steamed up.

I was in two minds what to do next. I was very tempted to walk away, but I knew that if I did leave and he had an accident, I could have been held responsible - so I stood firm. After half an hour of abuse, he did as I asked.

This was one success - but rare. There were many other situations where I backed down, often simply to avoid conflict over challenging the attitude that speed is more important than personal safety' Education Training is set to be a big issue at the safety summit, with industry putting the blame for a poor safety record firmly at door of the universities. But the universities, with the help of the HSE, are fighting back.

Spurred on by two recent studies into safety training at university level, the HSE has commissioned a study into how universities across the breadth of the construction industry are dealing with H&S. The results are proving very interesting.

The ball was set rolling two years ago when the Joint Board of Moderators issued guidance on the safety issues that should form part of undergraduate studies.

This was followed by an inter-institutional study with the chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical and structural institutions - on how best to incorporate health and safety into undergraduate courses.

These initiatives have increased the pressure on the universities to change their approach to H&S, but the question remained as to whether the change would happen.

The HSE study, led by Symonds Group's director of Health & Safety John Carpenter, aims to find out what the universities are doing now, what their concerns are, and what kind of teaching aids are needed. It then intends to produce these aids.

So far, Carpenter has uncovered a 'significant variation' in approaches. 'A few centres have really taken it on board, but many others haven't got to grips with it, ' he explains. 'It is a fact not a criticism that there is a lack of skill and understanding.'

The key to the study's success will be teamwork, he says, 'a partnership between industry and academia'. Partnership is vital as the HSE has no legislative power over academia.

This is why Carpenter is disappointed by the level of response to the study from industry organisations and institutions. 'The variability of response is indicative of the overall malaise, ' Carpenter bemoans. 'There are many disparate groups with an interest, but no co-ordination.'

The study will particularly focus on integration. 'H&S should be part and parcel of an integrated approach, not bolted on piecemeal, ' he explains.

This view is shared by Professor David Blockley, whose own university, Bristol, has built a whole curriculum with safety an integral part at every level. 'Historically we haven't paid much attention to H&S. But now the students see the relevance of regulations, ' explains Blockley, 'This is the only way to make it interesting'.

Surrey University is taking a similar approach, and cements this with a specific H&S course before students begin their industry year.

However, senior lecturer Bob Griffiths still sees problems, particularly since the advent of modules and increasingly diverse subject matter.

'These days students do much less design work, and don't get the large projects that get them into safety issues, ' Griffiths explains.

'Plus, all designs are different and safety is very hard to teach globally.'

The major companies seem to be aware of this though. Both Carillion and Mowlem put all new graduates on a week or more safety course, and graduates from WS Atkins and Mott McDonald agree that their training has been pro-active and effective.

'The fundamental problem is actually the obsession with the lowest price tender, ' explains the Graduates & Students Committee's Jim Dale.

'On jobs with partnering the first thing to improve is the H&S record.

But people simply don't realise the financial consequences of a poor safety record.'

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