In the second of Building's safety series in the run-up to John Prescott's summit, we look across the Channel to see how Britain's site death record compares with the rest of Europe.
On 13 November last year, 200 French construction workers downed tools and attended a funeral procession in Paris. At the head of the procession was an empty coffin representing a worker who died at work. The mourners, who were participating in a nationwide strike, gathered outside the headquarters of Medef – the French equivalent of the CBI – to demand better safety on sites.

Joseph d'Angelo, a national delegate of the CGT technicians' trade union, was one of the protesters. He says the coffin was there to remind construction employers that there are too many deaths in their industry – 200 a year in France alone – and that life expectancy in construction is 10 years lower than in other sectors of the economy.

The French construction workers have good reason to complain, but the problem is not confined to one country. "In Europe in general, there is an increasing rate of construction deaths," says Rolf Gehring, health and safety secretary of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers.

We hear gruesome stories of people dying on building sites and their bodies being dumped on the road

UCatt’s George Brumwell on safety in Germany

More than 1000 people die on construction sites in the European Union every year. According to the latest figures from Eurostat, construction has the highest rate of fatal accidents of any economic sector in the union. The situation in Britain is bad enough, but death rates in the rest of the EU are almost three times higher. In 1996 – the latest year for which figures are available – 286 people were killed in the construction industry in Germany, 276 in Italy, 238 in Spain and 224 in France.

This translates to an average death rate in the EU of 13.3 per 100 000 construction workers. By comparison, the UK had one of the best records in 1996, with 90 deaths in 1996, or 5.6 per 100 000 workers. "We give ourselves a hard time over the current accident rate, but we're doing pretty well compared to our European colleagues," says Suzannah Thursfield, the Construction Confederation's director of health and safety.

In the UK, there’s been a very positive culture of safety since the 1970s. That’s been later in coming in some Mediterranean countries

Alistair Gibb, European Construction institute’s safety taskforce

A DETR safety spokesman agrees: "The UK is one of the safest countries in which to work – but that's no reason for complacency." And Alistair Gibb, project director of the European Construction Institute's health and safety taskforce, insists that "straightforward comparison is not important". For one thing, countries use different definitions of work-related accidents – for example, some count transport accidents on the way to work. In any case, he says: "throughout Europe, there are too many deaths".

Another reason that figures are worse on the Continent is that some countries lack a tradition of strong health and safety legislation. "In the UK, implementation of legislation goes back a long way, and there's been a very positive culture of safety since the 1970s," says Gibb. "That's been later in coming in some Mediterranean countries." Safety standards even vary widely within national boundaries. In France and Spain, he says, sites along the Mediterranean coast have worse safety records than those closer to Paris and Madrid.

Contractors are asked to do projects in six months that normally take 20% longer

Peter McCabe, construction industry federation, Ireland

A report by Spanish construction union Fecoma, backs this view. The study, written by Gerardo de Gracia Pastor, the union's secretary of safety at work, and published last May, lamented the fact that the number of accidents on Spanish sites had doubled between 1994 and 1999. Spain's safety record is among the worst in Europe, with 28.9 deaths per 100 000 workers in 1996 and 2700 deaths in the decade to 1999.

Fecoma's report was highly critical of subcontractors, accusing them of caring only about money. It said the typical subcontractor's attitude to workers was: "Give me so many metres and I'll give you the money. I don't care about rights or agreements, and if you don't like it then you're off the job." Long hours and increasing obligations to work on weekends are cited as further causes of accidents.

Nobody implements the directives. It’s a bit like a speed limit – how many people do you know who follow speed limits?

Official, European Union

The employment of illegal immigrants also carries safety risks, according to George Brumwell, secretary-general of UCATT. "All sorts of people have been infiltrating into the European construction industry from the eastern bloc and beyond, and that's caused all sorts of health and safety problems." Immigrant labour has been particularly problematic in Germany, where he has heard "gruesome stories of people dying on building sites and their bodies being dumped down the road".

Time pressure is also a factor in the Republic of Ireland. Peter McCabe of Ireland's Construction Industry Federation says the booming economy is forcing site workers to put in long hours to meet tight deadlines imposed by clients: "Contractors are asked to do projects in six months that would normally take 20% longer." Ireland faces challenging safety issues, but unions, industry representatives and government officials are clubbing together to tackle them head on. All three groups are represented in the Construction Safety Partnership, which was set up in 1999 and produced a two-year action plan for 2000 to 2002. McCabe says that under the partnership approach, "labour and enterprise work together for everybody's benefit".

McCabe says one important provision of the CSP plan is its safe pass scheme. A safe pass identity card indicates that the holder has received basic health and safety awareness training and cardholders have to update the training every four years to renew their pass. McCabe says future legislation will require all personnel on site to carry a safe pass. He adds that scaffolders, roofers and plant operators will be legally required to have specialist competency certification.

The EU has been churning out directives in an attempt to make the industry less dangerous. The Temporary and Mobile Construction Site Directive, issued in 1992, "has already improved matters", according to Pierre le Gars, national secretary of FNCB-CFDT, a federation of French construction unions. An appendix to the directive, dealing specifically with scaffolding and ladders, is currently under consideration and is expected to come into effect later this year. One of the requirements will be that anyone assembling, dismantling or adjusting scaffolding must have specific training for the task.

The problem is that directives often go ignored. The European Federation of Building and Woodworkers' Gehring cautions that it is always important to distinguish between regulations and site practice. Indeed, an official at the EU's Directorate General of Employment and Social Affairs, who asked not to be named, admits that the difference between the two is often great. "Nobody implements the directives enough," the official says. "It's a bit like applying a speed limit – how many people do you know who religiously follow a speed limit?" Despite the difficulty of getting regulations enforced, there is good news about Europe-wide efforts to improve safety. Last June the ECI held a two-day conference entitled Designing for Safety and Health Proceedings, that attracted delegates from across the EU. The ECI's Gibb, who edited the publication of the conference's proceedings, says project design is crucial to subsequent safety on sites, but the link is not always obvious because the design stage "is more distant from the accident itself".