Construction sites are always going to be dangerous places to work – despite efforts to improve health and safety attitudes. Here’s how government, unions and contractors are trying to minimise accidents

A matter of life and death
A matter of life and death

Construction’s safety record is improving, but only very slowly. A National Audit Office (NAO) report published last May found that there had been only a 5% reduction in deaths and injuries since 2001, when site deaths reached such an unacceptable level that a crisis summit was called by the deputy prime minister John Prescott.

Andy Sneddon, health and safety director at the Construction Confederation, admits the industry has a long way to go to radically improve its safety record, but emphasises that the CC and its members are committed to creating lasting improvements. “We’re working hard particularly in the areas of occupational health and consultation. We’re encouraging employers to look after employees’ general health needs and increase the level of consultation between employees and employers so that workers are able to explain what kind of risks they face in the workplace. This means employers can better manage those risks. In the past, the unions criticised employers for not having this dialogue with workers. We’ve moved miles away from that,” he says.

CC members are each developing strategies for improving safety standards. The Major Contractors Group (MCG) has stipulated that its members must insist all workers carry a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card, which means the carrier has had basic health and safety training. It also encourages members to develop occupational health schemes for site workers (see Bovis case study, overleaf). The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), also a CC member, is demanding that, at the very least, all site workers must be registered with a local doctor and that all incidents must be reported. CECA has also developed a series of toolbox talks to help members manage site work more safely.

The NAO report was especially critical of designers’ lack of health and safety awareness or involvement in reducing the number of incidents. The CC is also concerned and has produced a prequalification standard that sets out the health and safety arrangements clients would like to see used by the design consultants they employ. The standard covers areas such as managing design hazards and supervising the work of subcontractors during the design period.

In the past unions criticised employers for not talking to workers. We've moved a million miles from that

Andy Sneddon, Construction Confederation

Another area of concern is the lack of reliable accident data. The Major Contractors Group wants to develop a pan-industry health and safety initiative that would provide an industry standard for reporting accidents. The initiative, proposals for which will be announced

at the 2005 safety summit, would concentrate on changing workers’ site culture. The training would be based on the incident-and injury-free initiative launched by Bovis Lend Lease in 2002, which promotes a zero tolerance of accidents among staff, the supply chain and clients. The idea is to make unsafe work practices unacceptable in the workplace.

Unions are also lobbying government to introduce corporate manslaughter legislation that could be used to prosecute construction companies. The TUC believes employers will only change their health and safety practices if the threat of punishment hangs over them. For the Sneddon at the CC, government has an important role to play as construction’s single largest client.

He says: “We need the government to be stronger as a client. Government departments issue guidelines about how to manage health and safety on site but there isn’t always a vigorous audit process to measure incidents. It’s issues such as these that we will hoping to resolve at the 2005 safety summit.”

Below target: Health and safety statistics

At the 2001 crisis summit, the Health and Safety Executive called for a 40% reduction in site deaths by 2005 and a 66% reduction by 2010.

Construction industry leaders agreed to meet those targets and the Construction Confederation set a target of reducing site deaths by 10% each year.

In February 2005, another summit will be held to evaluate the industry's safety record to date, but already construction is falling short of its targets. The figures make for dismal reading; in 2002/03, 71 construction workers were killed and 4780 suffered a serious injury.

In 2003/04 has seen no improvement: 70 construction workers have been killed on site.

Deaths in construction accounted for 30% of Britain's worker fatalities during 2003/04. This is 11% more than agriculture, the sector with the second highest number of deaths.

Case Study: Taylor Woodrow's safety initiative

In the past 11 years, contractor Taylor Woodrow, which has 7000 employees worldwide, has reduced its number of reportable incidents 50% and has consistently outperformed the industry's safety benchmarks. Here's how they did it ...

Hitting where it hurts
For workers who remain less convinced about the importance of safety management, the company publishes league tables that show poor adherence to its safety management system. A poorly performing site affects the bonus of the site manager and all levels of management up to director level. But sites that perform well will result in higher bonuses for managers.

Enabling the workforce
Taylor Woodrow has developed a skills profile for each role, showing which general courses a person must, should and could attend. The skills profile is linked on the intranet to a course booking system so people can review training needs. No management authority is required to book on to a course.

On a day-to-day level, site managers are equipped with "toolbox talks" that allow them to brief the workers on specific safety issues. There are 78 of these on the Taylor Woodrow intranet site that cover topics such as the safe use of hand tools, the safe use of ladders and the prevention of falls.

Good health and safety
is captured in a series of processes for the setting up, operating and closing down of a site. These cover the site compound through to traffic management.

Ensuring safety
A major part of the safety management system is the audit regime. There's a scheduled management performance audit that checks all the procedures are in place and there are unscheduled site inspections to check standards.

Improving the system
Safety performance is improved in a three-stage cycle. If a new idea is introduced by a site that goes on to score highly in an inspection; the high score will get noticed at safety reviews or on the intranet; as more sites adopt the practice, the site that originally spawned the idea will see its points lead decrease; to maintain a high inspection score (and a larger cash bonus) the site is encouraged to come up with new ideas.

Taylor Woodrow won best building contractor's safety initiative at Building’s Health and Safety Awards 2004.

Case Study: Bovis lend lease's occupational health initiative

Bovis Lend Lease's occupational health initiative Wellman Clinic may not have the most politically correct name, but the company argues it's an appropriate one. Bovis' research into occupational ill health suggested that men are far less likely than women to report ill health or seek treatment – and considering the majority of site workers are male, the name seemed apt.

The Wellman Clinic promotes health awareness and tackles health issues that are specific to site workers, such as vibration white finger. Bovis was concerned that many site workers work away from home so do not have access to their home town's healthcare system. This could mean they were less likely to address any problems. So a trial clinic was set up in April 2003 at the contractor's Plantation Place site in London with the aim of improving the overall health of the workforce. The idea was to improve individuals' welfare and reduce the number of operatives who needed sick leave or even had to retire early because of poor health.

Standard checks at the clinic included blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels, weight, body mass index and urine tests for traces of blood or protein. Test results were confidential and handed to the worker – nobody else. If a problem was revealed, the worker would be advised to see their doctor or make the appropriate lifestyle changes.

At first employees were sceptical and thought the clinic was a form of health surveillance. But workers were reassured that tests results were confidential and news soon spread about the services the clinic offered. The clinic's first month proved successful. More than 300 workers visited the clinic and the tests revealed more than 60 cases of health issues such as high blood pressure, some of which were potentially life-threatening.

Work on Plantation Place is now complete, but the company is rolling out the clinic initiative to other major sites.

Bovis Lend Lease won best occupational health initiative at Building's Health and Safety Awards 2004.