So Peter Hain’s first act as secretary of state for work and pensions was to call an inquest into why so many people are dying on building sites – 17 more this year than last.
There are a number of reasons why this move is urgently needed, but the most important is probably that the latest statistics show what many in the industry have long suspected: that we have a real problem with housebuilding and domestic refurbishment. And now that Gordon Brown is making the building of houses his top domestic priority it would be irresponsible for the government to turn a blind eye to the unintended, but entirely foreseeable, consequences of this policy.
That’s not to say the major contractors have cracked the problem. We’re in a the middle of the biggest building boom in a generation, so experienced site managers are like gold dust. No surprise, then, that analysis to be presented to a specially convened meeting of the Major Contractors Group (MCG) will show that there is no capable supervisor near the scene of most fatal accidents. The MCG is also considering a ban on old tower cranes – which is a problem that has been highlighted in our Safer Skyline campaign.
That said, there has been a perceptible culture change among the larger contractors since John Prescott’s safety summit in 2001. One aspect of their success is that almost their entire workforce is qualified to hold CSCS skills cards. So it’s good news that members of the Major Home Builders Group are to join the scheme. Clearly, health and safety champions from this sector now need to come forward – and the big housebuilders need to take their place around Hain’s table.
But what of the domestic sector? You only have to take a short walk down a typical street to see that this is roaring ahead. How is the safety message to reach the tiny firms that undertake this work? We’re not just talking about the cowboys here, but also workers for “reputable” firms who accept a certain amount of physical danger as part of the job. We’ve all seen them at work, or seen the photos of them in Building’s health and safety blunders file. The hope was that if we gave the message to the main contractors, it would trickle down to the small firms. That clearly hasn’t worked. The news that trustmark-registered firms are to sign up to CSCS has to be a step forward, but it will hardly be a complete answer.
A solution to safety on this scale will only come with a cultural change, in the same way that the perception of drink–driving changed from a bit naughty to totally unacceptable. In the meantime, we need to enforce safety rules, and in this regard perhaps there’s a role for building control body, the LABC? As the review of building control picks up pace (page 13) it has to be worth consideration.
Denise Chevin, editor.