The Health and Safety Executive has just recommended changes to the CDM regulations. So the first question we should ask is: will they do any good?

If there is one topic in construction that really gets me going it is health and safety. Indeed, I still recall the introduction of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations in 1994. This is because it was probably the first time I had been confronted with the appalling accident statistics (fatal and otherwise) of the construction industry.

In the 1980s it was common for there to be upwards of 100 fatal accidents annually.

Can you identify the first large construction project carried out in accordance with CDM? That project was the Heathrow Express, commissioned by BAA to provide a fast rail link between Paddington and Heathrow.

It was the same project where, late one night, the contractor’s operatives were carrying out allegedly unauthorised repairs to the crumbling invert of the shotcrete tunnel lining at the moment a large part of the tunnel collapsed. Unsurprisingly, the airport had to be shut down and at one stage it looked as if the Piccadilly line was in jeopardy. It was a miracle that a substantial number of lives were not lost.

The point about the Heathrow tunnel collapse is that the application, albeit on a voluntary basis, of the CDM regulations did not prevent any part of the chain of events that led to the collapse of the tunnel. Nor did any amount of quality assurance and quality management paper-trail systems. At that time, these were preferred to traditional means such as physical supervision for providing a cheaper method of ensuring the delivery of quality, performance and health and safety standards.

I remember going to a seminar on the new CDM regulations at which the experts assured the audience that, although clients were now expected to take a central responsibility for ensuring the appointment of competent designers and contractors and the application of appropriate health and safety procedures, compliance was in fact all about keeping the appropriate records.

There was much speculation about who would take on the role of planning supervisor. I have to say that I did become slightly concerned when I saw that, licking their wounds from the latest downturn of the construction market, it was the quantity surveyors who came forward in their droves to take on the mantle of the planning supervisor.

The CDM regulations did not prevent any part of the chain of events that led to the collapse of the tunnel

Obviously things have moved on and no doubt there are numerous trained health and safety experts out there with the experience and aptitude to discharge this role – and that of the planning co-ordinator who seems destined to replace the planning supervisor should the Health and Safety Executive’s recommendations for the overhaul of the CDM regulations canvassed in its recent consultation document be accepted.

In my view, anyone who cares about construction, its labour force and its reputation, owes it to themselves to respond to this important consultation. Why do accidents happen? Can they be avoided? Is the introduction of ever more detailed and onerous regulations really the answer to the problem? Is it realistic to place central responsibility for health and safety matters upon the client in the manner which the CDM regulations envisage?

Returning to cold hard statistics, by 1994, when CDM was introduced, the annual total of fatal accidents in the sector had come down to 75 from the highs of the 1980s. Interestingly, between 1994 and 2004 that figure has been between 47 and 73. Similar trends can be seen for other injuries. For instance, the number of injuries lasting for more than three days that were reported to the authorities by the industry stood at 17,177 in 1989/90, and 8162 for 2003/04.

Those statistics are encouraging. However, one wonders to what extent the trends might be driven by a reduction in the volume of construction activity. In any event, who can really attribute the downward trend in accidents to CDM itself? Nevertheless, these imponderables should not be allowed to mask the real problems that exist with CDM. In my next piece

I will consider whether the HSE’s agenda for change goes far enough in correcting them.

Dominic Helps is a partner in solicitor Shadbolt & Co,