Work and pensions secretary James Purnell reveals how the government was won over to Building’s Safer Skyline demands – and his plans to bring in a crane safety register next April

It’s a good job that James Purnell is a fast talker. Despite having a day so jam-packed that his assistant has to deliver a latte and sandwich to him mid meeting, he has decided to squeeze one extra appointment into his lunch hour.

The secretary of state for work and pensions has invited Building to his Westminster offices to reveal how he intends to bring in the UK’s new tower crane register – the central demand of Building’s Safer Skyline campaign. More than that, he seems to want to give the magazine some hope that another of its demands – rigorous checks on cranes more than 10 years old – might also be met.

Purnell’s update comes just weeks after the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) bowed to pressure to work with the construction industry on improving tower crane safety (see Building, 6 February, page 24).

James Purnell
Credit: Tom Harford Thompson
James Purnell

And action can’t come soon enough – despite a blitz by the HSE on tower cranes in 2007, 11 people have been killed in the past seven years. Two more firms were last week found guilty of health and safety breaches following the deaths of two men at a tower crane collapse in Sussex in February 2005.

It seems Purnell himself was won over to the need for a tower crane register both by Building’s campaign and the demands of his own House of Commons Work and Pensions select committee. And now that all sides are on board, it looks as if the government isn’t about to open itself to accusations of dragging its feet.

‘Fast timeframe’

The new register is planned for April 2010 and a consultation is due to start this summer

After instructing the HSE to address crane safety in December last year, Purnell is focused on getting the register up and running as soon as possible, with a consultation being prepared by officials. “We are working on a fast timeframe with this as I am absolutely clear that having a register could make a significant difference to the safety of people who work in the construction industry,” he says.

“The new register is planned for April 2010 and a consultation with the industry is due to start this summer.”

He is quick to add that, despite initial resistance, the HSE is now dedicated to working with him on the implementation of the register. “I am confident the HSE can consult with stakeholders to make this happen in the proposed timeframe,” he says.

“Plus, [construction workers’ union] Ucatt has been absolutely at the heart of this plan and its willingness will mean we can work quickly and effectively with the industry.”

It is this consultation period that will determine exactly what information the register will require for submission to the HSE. These details have, so far, been left undecided, other than the inclusion of the equipment’s age, location and ownership. But Purnell does confirm that Building’s call for all cranes over 10 years old to have an annual MOT will definitely be considered as well.

From voluntary to mandatory

There are some very good sites, but then there are some not taking responsibility and people are dying as a result

The new register will start life as a voluntary scheme this year but this will be a precursor to it becoming mandatory. At this stage, no decision has been made on how or when this transition will happen. What is known is that once it becomes mandatory, the scheme will be enforced by HSE inspectors and anyone not meeting the register’s requirements will be issued an enforcement notice before being taken to the criminal courts.

The reaction has so far been broadly positive. Liliana Alexa, secretary of the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group, lost her son in a crane accident in 2006. “MOTs are vital to improve crane safety,” she said. “Cranes should come with their own passports, detailing where each part of it is from, who supplied it and how old it is.”

‘Not acceptable’

Purnell says that, in addition to reducing injuries and deaths, the register will, he hopes, restore some faith in construction: “We want to make sure that the rest live up to the standards of the best. There are some very good sites and, for the most part, health and safety standards are high. But then there are some not taking responsibility and people are losing parents and children as a result – this is not acceptable.

“The register will make it easier to monitor those not living up to the correct standards and stop them undercutting those who are vigilant by taking short cuts on safety.”

Purnell talks fast, but not quite fast enough, as the interview has to be cut off to give him enough time to get in some preening and get into the best light for his photograph to be taken. But not before he takes an extra few seconds to congratulate Building on its campaign. “I really would like to compliment you on what you have achieved with this,” he says. “Just one death is one too many and totally unacceptable. We are now focusing on tackling this as quickly and effectively as possible.”

Purnell on the crane register

  • Consultation on how the crane register will work to start in the summer
  • Crane register to begin as a voluntary system in 2009 but to become mandatory
  • Consultation to include possibility of MOT for cranes over 10 years old

Our fight for the skies

Building’s Safer Skyline campaign was launched in 2007 after a spate of deaths as a result of crane accidents. The campaign has since been backed by nearly 100 MPs and senior industry figures.

Our demands

  • An HSE blitz on tower cranes - completed
  • A public tower crane register - promised
  • An annual MOT on all cranes over 10 years old - for consultation