Hands up all those who have been tempted to cut training on safety during the downturn? Do so and your business will suffer

Last year 72 people were killed in the construction industry. That’s 72 too many. The trade unions regularly express outrage about this, and they are right to do so. John Prescott, as deputy prime minister, called the industry’s leaders to a major conference in London in 2001. He said that if they did not sort out health and safety, the government would do it for them.

The industry responded. Large firms set a timescale for ensuring that the people on their sites all had CSCS cards. Previously, CSCS had made relatively little progress. But driven by the (then) Major Contractors Group and the Home Builders’ Federation, it surged forward. My own company, Willmott Dixon, has for many years had a report on health and safety as its first item on the board agenda. Embedding a health and safety culture at the top of a company is a critical success factor for a safe workforce.

ConstructionSkills has recently been encouraged by a number of positive results in this critical area. Its industry-recognised Health and Safety Test is a pre-requisite to receiving a CSCS card or an affiliated card and, in 2008, it was taken by more than 600,000 workers. ConstructionSkills also delivers the Construction Plant Competence Scheme (CPCS). More than 200,000 people have either achieved or are working towards a level two NVQ in Plant Operations, which complies with the latest CDM regulations.

The CPCS cards show that the worker is health and safety conscious, and the cardholder must resit the test every five years. ConstructionSkills also administers the CSCS scheme itself, under contract, with more than 250 occupations, and it provides similar services for affiliated schemes such as those for scaffolding and demolition.

Health and safety is also being more widely recognised as a lifelong learning need. Some 100,000 delegates have benefited from ConstructionSkills’ Site Safety Plus suite of courses, which ranges from a one-day awareness course for beginners to five days for site managers. Related to this, and now added to it, is the successful Achieving Behavioural Change (ABC) course. An essential element of this is that the client, architects and designers are in the same room for the day-long event as site operatives. When ABC was piloted on the JobCentre Plus refurbishment programme, the average incident rate was recorded at nearly 10 times lower than the industry average.

The industry’s safety record needs continual pressure. Construction is made up mostly of very small firms, by no means all of which are tuned in to safe practices

ConstructionSkills has also developed an online resource for employers of migrant workers to ensure that these workers are qualified and safe (available at www.constructionmigrantworkers.co.uk).

ConstructionSkills also has a leading advisory role to play. This includes heavy involvement with CONIAC, the HSE’s industry advisory committee. The guidance produced by the CDM working group is classified as an established standard by the HSE, reflecting the duties required by health and safety law. It can be downloaded free at www.cskills.org.

But there is still much to be done at all levels. It is good that the secretary of state for work and pensions, James Purnell, has set up an inquiry into safety in the industry. While it will doubtless produce a valuable report, things should not be left on hold until it does so. The industry’s safety record needs continual pressure, as Building’s Safer Skyline campaign has shown. Construction is made up mostly of very small firms, by no means all of which are tuned in to safe practices. Major contractors can achieve what they want on their sites, but most sites are not theirs.

The message which needs to be pushed to firms is this: it is your duty, even if you employ nobody directly, to ensure that the people on your sites think and act safely. Your business will benefit if you do so, and this will be understood by your clients.

Whatever the state of your business in the current downturn, do not give up safety training, or indeed any training – because when things improve, you need your business to still be in good shape.