The publication this week of the National Audit Office's report into health and safety on building sites has done the industry a favour.
Written on its forehead, in felt-tip pen, is a reminder of just how far construction still has to go to make the improvements it committed itself to at the 2001 safety summit. The report should bring back some of the alarm that firms felt then about the life expectancy of those working in Britain's biggest industry.

When the goals were set that February, the industry was in a state of crisis: in the previous 12 months, sites deaths had reached a 10-year high, and the previous December, five people had died in nine days. Prescott waded in to demand that firms improve – or else. The industry responded with a pledge to reduce injuries 40% by 2005, and 66% by 2010. With the first target a year away, there is a downward trend, but it is just 5% (see page 15). The most recent yearly statistics, for 2002/03, registered a death toll of 71 – a fatality rate six times greater than any other industry.

But has progress really stalled to the degree that the statistics suggest? The industry would argue that it has undergone a cultural revolution – for evidence, refer to the Health and Safety Awards supplement published in last week's issue. And witness the commitment of the Major Contractors Group, which now requires everybody on its members' sites to carry a CSCS card. And five years ago, who would have believed that firms would invest £1m to screen workers for diabetes and poor eyesight, following BAA's example at Heathrow Terminal 5? This is real progress.

The problem is that the baseline from which the industry started was so low – and not just among contractors. Professional practices seem to bear scant regard for the summit's targets – only last year, the Health and Safety Executive reported that fewer than one in 10 designers had any training in the CDM Regulations. And as for the regulations, which are still under revision, they need to address all aspects of this crucial issue, or frankly not bother getting updated at all. It is vital they clarify the legal liabilities of each team member in order to increase the effectiveness of the courts. And the role of the planning adviser is questionable in its present form … isn't it?

In addition to the time lag between policy and practice, the HSE's tougher approach only began in April 2002 – and the NAO itself concedes that it's too early to say whether its programme of carrots and sticks is paying off. The sooner it can quantify the industry's performance the better. This also could provide an argument for more resources at the HSE – vital if inspectors are to follow up site blitzes with return visits, as the NAO report suggests. And who could argue with that? Stare out of the window on one or two train journeys and you'll pass a site with workers tottering precariously over rooftops.

The government may be slow in drawing up a corporate manslaughter bill – too slow for the unions – but don't be fooled. The industry can expect the government to use the NAO report to ask difficult questions: and so it should. That is a very good reason to go ahead with a new safety summit proposed this week by the strategic forum. It also would be the ideal time for Whitehall to put its own house in order, as the NAO also demands, and announce that all public-sector contracts are to be let with a ringfenced tender item for safety.