Accident figures in the construction sector continue to be a major cause for concern. Paul Haddlesey takes a look at the main problem areas and some of the initiatives being deployed

Despite the many initiatives by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and by individual companies, the number of accidents in the construction sector continues to paint a depressing picture. In fact, according to the HSE, construction workers are six times more likely to be killed at work than other workers.

In the HSE’s most recent figures (June 2008), of all the reported fatalities at work during the preceding year, 72 were in the construction sector – representing 32% of the total across all industries.

While this is slightly down on the 79 construction fatalities of the previous year (33% of total), there is clearly still a long way to go.

Working at height continues to be the single biggest cause of fatal and serious injuries in the construction industry, accounting for 23 deaths in construction in 2006/07 – not to mention more than 4000 major injuries such as fractured skulls or other broken bones.

Falling from a vehicle also constitutes a major risk, with an average of five fatalities a year and a further 2000 or so serious injuries. Construction accounts for around 10% of these.

In addition, many injuries come from slips and falls, often caused by sites not being kept tidy. These injuries could be avoided by exerting a combination of awareness and common sense. In its ‘Shattered Lives’ campaign, the HSE has produced a range of materials – see

To further address these issues, HSE Construction Division inspectors carried more than 2400 inspections on refurb sites during two separate periods – summer 2007 and February 2008. They paid particular attention to working at height and keeping sites in good order.

During both initiatives they found that almost one in five sites were failing to address work at height risks on site. In fact, around one in three sites and one in four contractors were found to be working so far below acceptable standards that they were required to stop work immediately or make improvements within a specified timescale. A number of these were so bad that prosecution is being considered.

Legal complexities

The Work at Height Regulations have been in force since April 2005, which makes these figures all the more alarming, and failing to comply can have serious consequences for the accident victim, his or her employer and, quite possibly, other parties.

In fact, the regulations place duties on employers, the self-employed, employees and anyone who controls the way work at height is undertaken – which could also include a principal contractor, client, managing agent, contractor or factory owner.

Clearly this can lead to legal complexities when more than one organisation is involved. In one instance, an engineer from a contracting company fell off a ladder while repairing a machine mounted 8 ft above the floor in a server room. He was using a ladder that he found in the room, which was too short to reach the machine properly, lost his balance and fell.

Initially a trial judge ruled that the building owners shared liability with the contracting company, but this was overturned following an appeal on the grounds that the building operator could not have controlled what the engineer was doing. The contracting company was liable because the operative should have been better trained and known not to use a ladder that was too short.

This illustrates the need to comply with the regulations. This includes proper training (see box). Failing to comply can lead to heavy fines or even imprisonment for employers.

One of the major challenges facing many employers is getting this message across to foreign workers who have a limited command of English, as well as English-speaking workers who have limited reading skills.

“Employers need to ensure that their employees are adequately trained and that proper information has been given to employees about risks to their health,” warns solicitor Ian Bailey. “Of course, sometimes language difficulties can be an issue, but it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that the employee is capable.”

While many training materials are produced in pictorial format, there will also be instances when it is necessary for a worker to react quickly to a shouted warning, so a basic understanding of English is a necessity.

Find interpreter

“Imagine a situation where you, the manager, shout at someone to move out of a dangerous area or situation where an accident may occur,” suggests Dr David Edwards of Loughborough University. “Do you rush to your office to find the interpreter or your language translation notes or shout at someone in a range of languages before you find the right one? That is assuming that the manager is multilingual.”

In the run-up to the Athens Olympics there was a marked increase in the number of serious injuries to foreign workers, and there are concerns that the London Olympics could suffer likewise.

Carol Barrie, head of the property and construction group at accountant RSM Bentley Jennison, points out that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, which came into force earlier this year, augments existing health and safety legislation and makes it easier to secure convictions.

“If someone does get killed or injured, it is unlikely that the courts will be impressed by a health and safety policy communicated entirely in English to foreign workers whose knowledge of the language is limited,” she notes.

“Special health and safety training for these workers may well therefore be required to reduce the risk.”

The language problem has been recognised for some time and as far back as 2004 the HSE and TUC joined forces to produce safety information in 21 languages. A selection of foreign-language training aids are at

As well as providing the necessary training, there is clearly an onus on employers to ensure that the equipment they issue is appropriate and in good working order. One of the HSE’s latest initiatives is the ‘Ladder Exchange’, which provides an opportunity to trade in broken, damaged or bent ladders and get up to 50% discount from selected outlets. These include HSS Hire, SGB Hire and Sale, Speedy Hire, and selected Ladder Association supplier members.

Speedy Hire’s Mark Turnbull comments: “People need to ensure their ladders are in proper working order and, just as importantly, are using the right piece of equipment for the job. Far too often, accidents are caused when a ladder is used incorrectly or in place of safer access equipment.”

Further information about the Ladder Exchange can be found at

As an alternative to ladders, many companies are turning to mobile elevating working platforms (MEWPs).

The HSE has recently issued new and detailed guidance on the selection and use of such equipment, and a free document can be viewed or downloaded at

Engage with workforce

Underlying all these issues is the need for employers not just to get to grips with the guidance and legislation but also to engage with the workforce and get them involved as well.

“Evidence shows that, where employers and employees work closely together to agree the agenda and set targets to tackle real issues, they have made significant improvements,” notes HSE chair Judith Hackitt.

“We want this to continue and we also want to see employers taking more ownership and leadership to embed health and safety in their organisational culture and boardrooms. The high levels of fatalities in the agriculture and construction sectors continue to be of particular concern to us, and they will be a major focus of the HSE’s work priorities over the coming year,” says Hackitt.

Summary of HSE site inspections 2007/8

2403 sites visited
45 improvement notices on work at height issued
428 prohibition notices on work at height issued
26 improvement notices on good order issued
41 prohibition notices on good order issued
281 notices issued on other serious areas of concern

Work at Height Regs say duty holders must ensure:

  • All work at height is properly planned and organised
  • Those involved in work at height are competent
  • The risks from work at height are assessed and appropriate work equipment is selected and used
  • The risks from fragile surfaces are properly controlled
  • Equipment for work at height is properly inspected and maintained

    There is a simple hierarchy for managing and selecting equipment for work at height.

    Duty holders must:

  • Avoid work at height where possible
  • Use work equipment or other measures to prevent falls where they cannot avoid working at height
  • Use work equipment or other measures to minimise the distance and consequences of a fall where they cannot eliminate the risk of a fall.