A rush to meet demand in an industry with a skills shortage could have fatal consequences if workers aren’t trained properly

Stephanie Canham

From the Lyons Report to the National Infrastructure Plan, there are calls from the government and the opposition alike for a massive increase in housebuilding, engineering and construction projects.These are to be underpinned by billions of pounds in private and public investment. This is all well and good for many construction companies, but who is looking after the workers?

We are told that economic recovery is excellent news for the construction industry. And indeed it is. There are predictions of nearly 3.5% growth this year and over 5% next year, continuing into the foreseeable future. However, amid this optimism there are also reports of catastrophic failures in health and safety.

The Health and Safety Executive (yet to publish its figures for 2014/15) identified 42 fatalities on construction sites in 2013/2014 and the loss of 2.3 million working days due to illness and injury. During this period the construction industry accounted for 31% of all British deaths in the workplace. Warnings are being issued that these numbers will be in excess of this for 2014/2015.

An exacerbating factor in the rise in fatalities and injuries on construction sites is the shortage of suitably trained personnel. This has been identified in the press as “the skills time bomb”. Over 200,000 new recruits are required to meet projected demand during the next five years.

An exacerbating factor in the rise in fatalities and injuries on construction sites is the shortage of suitably trained personnel. This has been identified in the press as ‘the skills time bomb’

Many will be recruited from abroad and some may not have English as their first language. Without sufficient training, this new workforce will be more vulnerable than ever.

The government has made an attempt to address these issues in the 2015 changes to the 2007 Construction (Design and Management) Regulations. These seek to tighten up (with transitional provisions) health and safety duties and obligations for all parties in the pre-construction and the construction phases of construction projects. In addition, workers must be consulted about matters which affect their health, safety and welfare. When a contractor appoints an individual to work on a construction site, enquiries must be made as to whether that person has the necessary skills, knowledge, training and experience. The contractor is also required to assess training needs.

Another initiative is the publication of draft guidelines for sentencing for breaches of health and safety under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This follows complaints that fines imposed on some organisations were too low. Proposals for fines for breach of the rules could vary from £50 to £450,000 for a micro-organisation (turnover not more than £2m) to over £10m for larger organisations (turnover £50m or over). Corporate manslaughter could attract a fine for larger organisations of up to £20m. In December last year, a site manager and a health and safety adviser were jailed for three years three months and nine months, respectively, in relation to a labourer who was crushed to death while working on a basement excavation.

But are these measures really likely to result in a reduction of onsite hazards? We have had rules, guidelines and punishments in relation to health and safety for many years, but what effect do they have in practice? Surely grass roots incentives are required? Recent announcements of health and safety initiatives funded privately by the construction industry show that developers and employers are taking their duties in relation to prevention very seriously.

In late January this year, Berkeley Group announced £2m funding in the form of grants (open to all, not just to companies within the group) to promote health and safety measures. The rationale is to encourage a partnership between individuals and employers to ensure that all are aware of their roles and responsibilities concerning site safety. Against a background of projected expansion and pressure upon delivery, the need to keep everyone safe on site will become more acute. A move such as Berkeley’s can only be applauded.

Stephanie Canham is national head of projects and construction at law firm Trowers & Hamlins