Seventy site deaths a year is unacceptable to everyone, including the government. So why doesn’t it use its commercial leverage to save lives?

I am delighted to have been asked by Building to contribute a regular column. I make no apology for the fact that a frequent topic of mine will be health and safety. It is something I am passionate about.

My company, Bovis Lend Lease, devotes enormous energy and resources to site safety through our Incident and Injury Free programme. The Major Contractors Group, of which I am chairman, is demanding a fully qualified workforce from its supply chain, and from its members that they adhere to an increasingly ambitious health and safety Charter. And after the recent health and safety summit, I am working with the Strategic Forum to develop a more concerted approach to health and safety throughout the industry.

There is no more important task for this sector, and the government has rightly insisted that we get our house in order. It is a tragic fact that we have a worse record than any other UK industry, save farming. It is simply unacceptable that 72 workers were killed on British construction sites last year and that the legacy of asbestos exposure still results in about 700 deaths a year.

Although these workers are today’s victims, they are suffering the ill effects from their exposure to asbestos 25 to 40 years ago. Clearly, through strict safeguards regarding the handling of potentially hazardous materials, we must be absolutely determined that we ensure both a safer and healthier legacy.

It is crucial that in 20 years’ time, our workers are not suffering from the practices we follow today. We have to minimise the incidence rate of work-related ill health in the construction industry by health surveillance, education, rehabilitation and reducing exposure to hazardous materials. How can we ever hope to have a sustainable industry attracting the best people unless we get this right?

There are already many initiatives under way in the industry, which hold the promise of a better health and safety performance. In future columns, I want to highlight some that I believe can make the most difference.

This time, though, I want to focus on the role of government. As the industry’s biggest client, its behaviour and attitude towards health and safety is crucial to our ambitions. A recent survey carried out by the Construction Confederation has looked at the extent to which health and safety management plays a role in the award of public sector contracts.

The government should use its buying power to be much more demanding. I want clients to insist that all contractors bidding for public sector work should have a fully qualified workforce

Its key findings were as follows:

  • Only 52% of respondents were always required to undergo a health and safety assessment during the bidding process
  • 13% said their health and safety performance was never a significant factor
  • Almost 60% said they were never made aware of the government’s procurement guidance note on health and safety during the bidding process
  • Only 13% of respondents were always asked to make specific provisions for occupational health
  • More than one-third said post-completion health and safety reviews were never carried out.

It frustrates me that the government does not use its buying power to be much more demanding of this industry. For example, I want government clients to insist that all contractors bidding for public sector work have a fully qualified workforce and I have urged them to use flagship public projects to introduce more young people into our industry and train them properly. What a fantastic opportunity the 2012 Olympics offers to do just that.

It would be all too easy to use the Construction Confederation survey simply to knock government and to whinge about its inability to deliver. However, although the survey paints a mixed picture, there is also clear evidence of excellent practice. Bovis Lend Lease has worked with the Department for Works and Pensions on Jobcentre Plus. The DWP is an enlightened client that pays proper regard to health and safety. Indeed, it recently won a Building award for integrated project safety, recognising that it was streets ahead of the rest of the public sector. We have also seen a marked change of attitude from Defence Estates.

We need to build on this success and use these public sector clients to persuade their colleagues elsewhere in government to take a similar approach. I hope that the Strategic Forum, which includes a representative from the Office of Government Commerce, can take this forward. My aim is to kickstart an initiative through a high-level conference and to seek the support of leading Cabinet members who share our concerns on this issue.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear from anyone else who has a positive experience to relate about a public sector employer. Let’s not knock government clients. Let’s use these good news stories to embarrass those that do fall short, and show them how they can turn best practice into common practice.