Sites are safer than they were in 2002, but the next set of HSE statistics will show that things are getting worse. The causes are difficult to pinpoint but the solutions are easier to find

I make no apologies for returning to the subject of site safety. We are at a critical point right now, and facing the prospect of an alarming rise in accidents on UK sites.

I don’t wish to detract from what has been achieved. Sites today are far safer than they were five years ago. The latest annual Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, published in April 2006, showed that reportable accidents and fatalities had fallen once again.

That was nine months ago. We are now in the final quarter of 2006/07 and it will show that there were more fatalities on site in the first three quarters than in the whole of the previous year.

How can that be? Contractors and subcontractors are pouring enormous resources into accident prevention and safer working. Awareness should be at an all-time high, yet we appear to be on the brink of a disastrous about-turn.

Are workers suffering from information overload? Is apathy setting in? Or are we sacrificing safety for speed of delivery? There is tremendous pressure on contractors now, with a market that’s already showing signs of overheating and set to get even hotter as commercial clients compete with the Olympics to get their projects across the line first.

Workload should never be allowed to affect safety and I don’t think it is, but greater honesty is helping to push up accident statistics. People are more prepared to report incidents than they were five or 10 years ago.

Putting a finger on the exact cause of rising accidents is hard. I know one thing, however: we must do more to engage with the workforce. That has always been difficult in an industry like ours, with its pool of transient labour. Today it is even harder, with an ever-increasing portion of labourers being foreign nationals. There is no doubting their skills but many of haven’t worked in the safety culture that prevails on British sites.

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to study other industries’ approaches to safety. The riskiest of these would, on the face of it, appear to be nuclear power. Not surprising, then, that their safety systems are stringent and rigorously enforced.

Tower cranes can be lethal. A proper risk assessment, carried out at the workface, is much more likely to find safe solutions

On a recent visit to a nuclear power station, I was really impressed with their mindset and safety procedures. Before any remotely risky work is tackled, they sit down as a team and consider “what is the worst thing that could happen”. Then they list what measures must be taken to guard against those risks and ensure they are implemented.

This is an approach we would do well to adopt. Site accidents are usually the result of human error or mechanical failure so, by considering at the outset what could go wrong and the consequences, then shaping our method statements to safeguard everyone concerned, we could go a long way to eliminating unsafe practices.

Take the recent tower crane collapse in Liverpool, highlighted by Building’s Safer Skyline campaign, which is now being investigated by the HSE. We couldn’t build without tower cranes but wrongly used, they can be a lethal. A proper risk assessment, carried out not in a distant office but at the workface, is much more likely to pinpoint the risks and provide practical solutions.

At the workface, much of the responsibility for undertaking risk assessments will rest with site supervisors. Invariably, they are closest to the risks and usually best placed to identify the dangers. But if they are to do this and engage with the workforce – both big tasks – they need to know that senior managers, on and off-site, trust their judgment.

We have tried in the past to “design out” some of the hazards involved in constructing buildings. Now, with a growing skills shortage, there’s even more incentive to reduce the amount of work that has to be done on site. Prefabrication improves quality and finishes as well as reducing the exposure of workers to some of the more dangerous trades required in on-site assembly.

But if this is to succeed, it has to be an industry-wide initiative that embraces architects, engineers, subcontractors and suppliers as well as main contractors. Working in tandem, I know we can find better and safer ways of tackling routine tasks.

Above all, we need to act now, we need to act decisively and we need to act together. By the time the HSE’s next accident statistics are delivered in April, it will be too late.