Prescott's site safety summit is only four days away, so it's no wonder the new boss of the Health and Safety Executive has his attention firmly fixed on construction.
New Health and Safety Executive director-general Tim Walker has taken considerable trouble to get to know the industry he identifies as "one of our highest priorities". With responsibility stretching from the Hatfield investigation to oil rigs and biotech labs, he has still found time to join his construction inspectors on six unannounced site visits in his first five months in the job.

These visits are a clear indication of his commitment to reversing construction's recent safety backslide. But Walker doesn't reach for emotional buttons. After labelling last year's appalling toll of site deaths as "unacceptable", his strongest condemnations tend to be couched in economic terms. "Everyone ought not to want to kill or injure their employees.

If you have invested in training, you ought to want people to be able to go on working." Meanwhile, the industry will be looking to Walker to tackle its difficulties in relating to the HSE. Behind the dry, bureaucratic tone of its guidance notes, nobody is sure whether they are dealing with the construction safety police, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy cranking out opaque regulations on instruction from Brussels, or individuals with the best interests of the construction workforce at heart.

And now, with the construction safety summit taking place on Tuesday, the HSE has a new role thrust upon it. It is to become the lead body for an industry-wide crusade for better health and safety standards, after the initial call to action from deputy prime minister John Prescott and the DETR.

But as there is already confusion about what the HSE does, and should do, there are mutterings within the industry that its headquarters is an unsuitable rallying point for the campaign. Walker throws the ball back into the industry's court, stressing that the summit and its aftermath are a chance for it to show it can take charge of its own safety agenda.

"With more public spending going into construction, we don't want it to be accompanied by more people getting killed or injured. We want the industry to address the problem, and to commit itself to reducing deaths and injuries." He rejects calls for more construction E E inspectors and a more active stance with the argument that the industry must take responsibility for its own inspection regime. "We have 100 inspectors engaged entirely on construction. Even if you multiplied that number by four, or eight, you're not going to inspect every building site. The whole essence of safety legislation is that the duty falls on duty-holders; the HSE doesn't manage the risk on their behalf." The safety summit next week, which has had its programme squeezed from two days to half a day, is expected to attract 800 senior industry delegates. "It's an indication of the scale of its importance," says Walker. After a keynote speech from Prescott, the audience will listen to presentations of action plans from key sectors of the industry: the Construction Clients Forum, the trade unions and umbrella bodies such as the Construction Confederation and the Construction Industry Council.

Walker stresses that this spotlight on safety will not end with the summit. Year-on-year targets are likely to be set as yardsticks for the success of the action plans. A pan-industry action plan is also likely, with different organisations responsible for achieving specific targets.

Having a written policy is only the first step – the big thing is making it happen

Walker explains: "Different parts of the action plan will be policed by different people, then the ministers will hold people to what they're committing themselves to." Walker has seen evidence of construction's appetite for a more hands-on style from the HSE. On site visits in London and Aberdeen, he says he was "very struck at how the inspectors were greeted with a lot of respect, they were asked about the best way to do things and gave advice". It is clear that he interprets this as evidence that inspectors are getting it right now, rather than seeing it as an example of best practice that the HSE should aspire to.

But then, what the HSE can and cannot do is defined by government charter, just as Walker's outlook is shaped by a career in government. A career civil servant, the 55-year-old arrived at the HSE in October after spells in several hot seats: as the UK representative on the International Atomic Energy Authority, director-general for immigration and nationality at the Home Office, and deputy chairman of Customs and Excise. He sees parallels between Customs and Excise and the HSE: "Both roles are about giving guidance, helping people and enforcing the law." Post-summit, the HSE will continue with its regime of inspection and prohibition notices, but will have two special reasons for singling out construction. Along with agriculture and the health service, it is one of three industries identified by the HSE's Health and Safety Commission as having unacceptably high accident rates and health risks.

The HSE is also engaged in a pan-industry offensive against musculo-skeletal injuries, falls from height and transport-related injuries. Walker lays emphasis on health and safety training, post-accident investigations, and spreading the health and safety message to materials producers (still manufacturing oversized breeze blocks that are difficult to handle) and designers (still drawing in hazards such as rooflights).

But is it efficient for inspectors to spend their time locating individual architects while the message never reaches the rest of the profession? This also raises a question over the effectiveness of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, which were specifically designed to spread the burden of health and safety responsibility to designers.

However, it is the main contractors that must shoulder most of the responsibility, and Walker urges them not to rest on their laurels after producing health and safety policies. "Having a written policy is only the first step – the big thing is making it happen. Chief executives and directors have to demonstrate that they are putting safety first, and getting on site to do their own inspections. If people hear the words but don't see the actions, they will take short cuts." The trade unions have already stolen a march on main contractors with plans for roving safety reps, for which the HSE is devising a pilot scheme. Walker predicts that: "It will be relatively small: the larger it is, the longer it takes to get off the ground." But don't expect lift-off anytime soon: tenders will be invited in the next two months followed by an assessment period. Interestingly, the HSE expects academic institutions and even private consultants to come forward as well as unions.

The HSE has come in for criticism that the accident data it collects, and increasingly publishes on its website, gives a bare outline of each case, whereas industry researchers would benefit from a fuller picture. On this score, Walker is evidently prepared to listen. He is aware that the lack of research data hinders attempts to improve the industry's record. On the other hand, he says the HSE's remit is about enforcing legislation and investigating accidents, not drawing up its own agenda or funding speculative research.

Personal effects

How old are you? 55
Who’s who in your family? Walker and his wife and three daughters live close to Clapham Common, south London.
Have you ever had any domestic accidents? Once, in a holiday house in france, a gas oven blew up in my face. It left some nasty burns.
Would you say you were safety-conscious at home? I always wear my crash helmet and a high-visibility yellow jacket when I cycle into work.
What do you like doing in your spare time? I do a lot of cooking, and I collect modern prints. I’ve got quite a lot of Japanese prints.
What’s your favourite recipe? Fresh pasta with fresh basil, lemon juice and zest. It’s a good one for when you get back from work.