Revitalising Construction Health and Safety, an HSE discussion document circulated to industry leaders, is staggeringly ambitious. It seeks to make everyone involved in constructing a building accountable for safety, and suggests that everything from insurance to the planning system be used to ensure that the industry takes its responsibilities seriously. To support its case, the HSE unleashes some compelling statistics. Despite a 25% fall in site deaths over the past year, builders remain six times more likely to be killed at work than any other employee. And although three-quarters of those killed are self-employed or working for a contractor employing fewer than 15 people, half of all fatalities occur on sites where more than 15 people are working. So much for the theory that roguish small builders are besmirching the good name of the big boys.
Progress has been made since the government launched its safety drive in June 2000. Some contractors list the number of working hours since their last reportable accident on site boards. The realisation that safety is both morally righteous and good business is starting to hit home. But there is still a long way to go. Even the majors, who set themselves even more stringent safety targets than the government, suffered an 11% rise in site injuries over the past year.
Against that background, it's no wonder that the HSE is looking at ways to engender the kind of instinctive safety culture that developed in the oil and gas industry after the Piper Alpha disaster. Tightening the law is an obvious move. Another, as Building revealed in June, is to use Britain's 4000 building control officers to police sites. There are also financial levers to pull – from awakening the consciences of institutional investors to giving clients responsibility for employing planning supervisors. The discussion document suggests that more councils circulate safety literature to anyone who submits a planning application. Actually, they could go further and require the designer to show that the building can be erected safely before permission is given – according to the HSE, 60% of site deaths are attributable to decisions taken before work begins. Hopefully, the move to single project insurance will alert designers to their responsibilities.
And that really is the key message of the HSE's excellent, if somewhat breathless, discussion paper: we are all in this together, from the banker to the brickie. Of course, the danger with such an all-encompassing agenda is that in trying to tackle everything, it will fail to achieve anything. And if everyone is culpable, won't individual accountability be diluted? Effecting cultural change is a tricky and complex business, as Latham found when he tackled adversarialism, and Egan discovered with productivity. The safety drive will require equal patience and perseverance. But the HSE is on the right track, and Building, for one, is right behind it.