Wherever there's an on-site safety breach, Mike Cosman is detective, prosecutor and grand inquisitor rolled into one. Marcus Fairs talks to the new head of operations within the Health and Safety Executive's construction division.
Michael Cosman spent much of the week before last busting sites in London's West End. The raids were the opening shots of the Health and Safety Executive's high-profile, year-long safety blitz, and the results were dramatic. In the space of a week, the inspectors served more prohibition notices than they usually issue in four months.

"The group I was with visited five or six sites and we found problems on all of them," says Cosman. "We could have prosecuted for the violations we saw. But the objective was to create an impact."

Both the raids and Cosman's appointment are fruits of a shake-up at the HSE triggered by the alarming rise in site deaths last year.

Cosman runs the construction sector – the operational arm of the construction division – which has been established with a brief to sort out the industry's safety crisis. Cosman has been given an extra 40 full-time inspectors and reports to Kevin Myers, whose role as chief inspector of construction has been beefed up.

But Cosman believes that the massive leap in fatalities – from 87 in 1999/2000 to 114 in 2000/1 – was a blip rather than a worrying trend. "It could be argued that it's statistically not a significant increase," he explains. "Obviously there is heightened public and political concern with the high level of fatalities, but our argument is that to a significant extent the number is – no pun intended – an accident." With provisional figures showing fatalities last year back down to the mid-1980s – something Cosman describes as "relatively small numbers" – his theory seems to hold water.

That doesn't mean Cosman can put his feet up. The HSE is committed to reducing fatalities and serious injuries 40% by 2004/5 and a further 26% five years after that. However, it is worth pointing out that the 40% target was prematurely reached in 2001/2.

As he unleashes his crack safety squads across the land, the industry could be forgiven for viewing Cosman as a grand inquisitor, sniffing out safety heretics and publicly humiliating them. Offenders will, after all, be named-and-shamed on the HSE's website.

But in person, Cosman is a reassuringly sympathetic safety bureaucrat. He's 44 and bald; quaintly, he still puts his O level results on his CV (he got seven, including maths and advanced maths). He has worked for the HSE all his adult life and understands that construction is dangerous and that accidents can never be eliminated entirely. He is also realistic about the industry's ability to change. "It's a difficult industry to achieve a change. Inspectors are only tackling the symptoms.

It has to be that the industry wants to reform itself. At the highest level it is changing, but the message has not yet filtered down."

Ninety per cent of safety is common sense. You wouldn’t accept it at home, or in a factory – so why on a construction site?

Cosman has probably seen it all during his 23 years of HSE postings, but is still capable of being freshly gobsmacked when he walks on to a site. "Some of the things I saw the other week were really stupid," he exclaims. "We visited a house refurbishment with an electricity cable running right across the top of the stairs at ankle height. The site manager stepped over it as he was showing us around."

But Cosman's job is not just about raiding sites. How about raiding architects, for example? He's keen to track safety breaches back to their source, which is often the drawing board. "How many architects think about safety issues? Not many, I suspect.

For example, there's no reason whatsoever why they need to specify a fragile rooflight in a building. If we wanted to, we could turn up unannounced at an architect's – but I'm not sure how productive that would be."

Health and safety is now an integral part of the government's Rethinking Construction agenda, and it comes as no surprise that Cosman is well-versed in Egan-speak.

He accompanies Myers to meetings of the strategic forum and is closely involved in the forthcoming discussion document – now delayed until the autumn – that will set out the industry's ideas for improving safety.

"Undoubtedly, it will lead to some legislative changes," he says. According to Cosman, the forum wants Construction (Design and Management) rules rewritten to legally enforce the Egan concept of integrated supply teams.

However, he is unconvinced by the idea. "Integrating the supply chain will give you better certainty about getting the job done on time, to the right quality because people are familiar with the process, and cost. Alongside that you'll get improvements in safety. But I'm not sure you can use safety as the Trojan horse to drive the others. I don't think you can say 'thou shalt have an integrated supply team'."

Instead of bullying the industry to change, Cosman prefers a holistic view, pointing out that some clients are preventing smaller firms from investing in safety. "There are still plenty of people who are looking for lowest cost rather than best value, and therefore if you're a small builder you probably have to compete on those terms or you go out of business."

Personal effects

What are your hobbies?
Foreign travel, gardening, eating too much. It’s horribly boring really. I’m just Joe Soap when it comes to my private life.
Have you tried any dangerous sports?
What do you mean by dangerous? The most dangerous thing I do statistically is drive my car.
Is safety your main consideration when buying a car?
I certainly consider it but it’s not my priority. As it happens, my Laguna did win five stars in the crash test, but that’s not the reason I bought it.
What’s the stupidest safety breach you’ve witnessed?
I saw a man standing on a girder being hoisted onto the top of a 60-foot-high storage tank. It was a bit like the photo of workers eating their lunch on a girder at the Empire State Building. I ended up prosecuting both the contractor and the crane hire company.