Falls from height caused 37 deaths on site last year, yet firms continue to ignore the risks. We find out what the industry's doing to tackle the problem – and who's to blame
Gary Seber is a lucky man. On 1 September 1999, he was installing waterproof seals to the windows of the Canary Riverside Hotel (now the Four Seasons) at Canary Wharf, London Docklands, when the cradle in which he was working upturned. He plummeted 20 m on to solid concrete and only regained consciousness two weeks later, at which point he was told what had happened. "The paramedics who tended to me estimated that when I hit the ground I was travelling at 120 mph," he says.

Thirty-seven construction workers died last year after this kind of accident; 1424 workers suffered a major injury. The industry is so blasé about falls from height that this was considered a "good" year, because there were 10 fewer fatalities than the year before. Since April, nine more have been killed, the latest only two weeks ago when Robert Harwood, a 50-year-old joiner, fell 12.5 m to his death at a Carillion site in Salford.

Half of all site deaths are falls, which indicates that preventative measures are not working. The Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, requiring contractors to observe safety rules for work heights of over 2 m, have been around since 1996. Yet when the Health and Safety Executive launched a series of safety "blitzes" last April to monitor how well the regulations were being observed, they got a shock. Safety levels were so bad that work had to be stopped on 460 of 1113 sites visited.

Kevin Myers, chief inspector of construction at the HSE, said in his January progress report: "Though the low rates [of falls from height last year] are certainly grounds for optimism, I cannot yet see convincing evidence that an inexorable downward trend has been established, either for fatal or major non-fatal injuries."

The figures from the latest blitz in June make slightly better reading. Work had to be stopped on only 332 sites out of 1446 visited. Mike Cosman, head of the HSE's construction division, revealed that although the new figures showed a "slight improvement" in awareness of the danger, many firms were still ignoring the risk. "I am still visiting sites where safety is very poor," he said. The industry has a long way to go to meet the target set by deputy prime minister John Prescott at the inaugural Construction Summit in February 2001: a reduction in fatalities and major injuries of 40% by 2005 and 66% by 2010.

Designers must bear some responsibility for the high number of accidents. The HSE's latest statistics estimate that an astonishing two-thirds of architects did not consider the 1994 Construction (Design and Management) regulations when drawing up their plans. Only 8% of designers had had any training on the specifics of the CDM rules, regulation 13 (2a), which requires designers to "combat at source risks to the health and safety of any person at work carrying out construction work".

In March, the HSE surveyed 123 major projects in Scotland and the north of England to review how well designers were combating the specific danger of falls from height. Inspectors found that "in one third of cases, the designers demonstrated little or no understanding of their responsibilities." According to the HSE, a significant number "had failed to consider the practical detail of how the structure would be constructed, maintained and cleaned."

But complying with the CDM rules is not hard. "It's often simple, common-sense stuff," says the HSE's Cosman. "If you're designing a glass surface that builders will have to work on, you should use reinforced glass rather than fragile material."

Ian Whittingham, a former roofer from West Kirby on the Wirral, says designers should be making more effort to design out risk. He is paralysed from the waist down after falling 10 m through a factory roof. "When they're designing they should think about how something's going to be built, so you don't end up using fragile materials," he says. "They should also think about whether they really need someone on the roof".

Rob Halls of quantity surveyor Currie & Brown believes that safety still gets shunted to one side by time and money concerns. "The HSE's campaign, and the message since the Construction Summit two years ago, is that safety is as important as time and costs," he says. "But at a recent meeting with a top contractor, it was made clear that was not the case."

The HSE has responded, launching an industry initiative under the slogan "Don't fall for it". The campaign uses provocative imagery and slogans on advertisements in the trade press. One features an image of a worker being carried into an ambulance following a fall on site, with the sombre slogan: "Which white van will you leave work in today?"

Affordable housing provider Lovell has joined in the effort to raise awareness. One of its posters shows a man lying unconscious, his head covered in blood, after falling from scaffolding. Another deals with the consequences of surviving a fall: "Imagine not feeding, bathing or going to the toilet by yourself – is this for you?" Nick Lawrence, director of health and safety at the firm, says the initiative is so vital "money is no object".

Although the increased awareness is heartening, it may not be hitting the right target. Of the 3996 major injuries to employees in 2001-02 caused by falls from height, 2132 were falls from less than 2 m. But legislation does not require fall prevention measures below this height. The HSE is therefore proposing to remove the 2 m rule and replace it with "distance liable to cause personal injuries", in its draft of the Work at Height Regulations due for consultation in the late summer.

The proposals are intended to change the focus of health and safety regulations that deal with working at height. Instead of prescriptive legislation, contractors will be expected to perform more rigorous risk assessments and method statements. The worry with this proposal, believes Andy Sneddon, health and safety director of the Construction Confederation, is that smaller contractors on smaller sites, who "tend to see things in black and white", will ignore the need to provide guard rails and safety equipment above 2 m because it will not be a formal requirement of law.

These smaller sites are the key to the whole problem. Serious accidents are much more likely to happen on smaller, less regulated sites. An analysis of data provided for the HSE by the Bomel Consortium, the research consultant, shows that significantly more fatal accidents – of which falls from height make up the largest category – have occurred on sites of between one and 13 workers. Of approximately 300 deaths onsite between 1996 and 2001, about 212 occurred on sites of fewer than seven people.

For Gary Seber, Robert Harwood and Ian Whittingham, any change to the industry's approach to safety will come too late. When Seber fell he broke his collarbone, both his arms, his neck and four vertebrae and needed a bolt inserted in his skull to ease the pressure on his massively swollen brain. His left leg, on which he landed, hit the ground with such force that "my tibia and fibula came in four separate parts instead of two". He was unable to walk for 18 months after the accident. The company that incorrectly installed the track from which the cradle was suspended, Access Projects, was eventually fined £9000.

But most industry figures agree that prevention is not just about legislation. Andrew Large, director of external affairs at the Federation of Master Builders, says the shocking message of the new campaign is beginning to "strike a chord" with smaller contractors. For Gary Seber and Ian Whittingham, reducing the biggest killer on site has to start with the individual. "It's all about awareness, really," says Whittingham. "On site, you've got to step back when starting a new task. If you're not happy, stop working and sort it out."

The kill bill: corporate blame

One reason companies may soon be forced to pay more attention to health and safety issues is the government’s proposed legislation that would make it harder for individual directors to dissociate themselves when company employees are killed on site.

Under the proposals, a director of a corporation would be guilty of corporate killing if they committed the new offence of “management failure”. Whereas responsibility is more easily attributable in small firms, the diffuse management structures of big firms make it possible for guilty companies to get off because no individual can be blamed. The new legislation would focus responsibility on directors.

David Blunkett announced plans on 20 May to publish a draft bill this autumn with a timetable for implementation. However, fearing that the government may try to kick the issue into the long grass, the Transport and General Workers’ Union has published two draft bills of their own to hurry the government along.

As well as the Corporate Killing Bill, the Health and Safety (Duties on Directors) Bill would require the appointment of health and safety directors from the ranks of senior board members, so that health and safety was an integral part of board strategy.