HSE plan to improve occupational health could be blown off course by continued high death rates on site

The industry’s failure to hit Health and Safety Executive targets for reducing site fatalities will be exposed at next year’s safety summit, and threatens to undermine a campaign to improve occupational health.

The introduction of a national occupational health programme – which could include on-site screening for heart conditions, blood pressure and repetitive strain injuries – is expected to be the focus of February’s industry summit.

However, an admission that the rate of fatalities has not declined in line with targets would cast a shadow over any expansion of the HSE’s remit.

One source said: “It is likely the summit will be a strange event, especially if government figures like John Prescott turn up. Workers are still being killed on sites and the figures reflect that, so what can the government say or do about it?”

Deputy prime minister John Prescott launched the HSE’s fresh set of tougher targets after consultation with the industry at the first safety summit in February 2001. These called for a 10% reduction in the rate of fatal accidents per 100,000 workers each year until 2004/05.

The benchmark year for evaluating progress was 1999-2000, when there were 81 fatalities, but in the seven months since April, there have been 42 deaths, making it unlikely that the target for 2004/2005 will be hit.

There wasn't a clear strategy on how these targets would be met

Lawrence Waterman, Sypol

Lawrence Waterman, head of health and safety consultancy Sypol, said the targets would probably not be hit but blamed a lack of government guidance. He said: “There wasn’t a clear enough strategy from the government or the HSE on how these targets would be met. Our industry has generated more of its own initiatives than any other sector.”

He added: “If the targets had all been met, people would have said they were undemanding. In general, the industry is pushing down the number of fatal accidents.”

The HSE did not rule out the possibility that the targets would be met but admitted it was worried by current figures. Phillip White, head of the construction sector, said: “Recent analysis suggests that it is too early to comment on whether the industry will meet the targets it agreed at the 2001 summit. Figures continue to cause concern.”

The HSE has yet to finalise its agenda for the summit but the safety sector believes that occupational health is set to be a headline issue.

Andy Sneddon, health and safety director at the Construction Confederation, said occupational health would “almost certainly” be the major focus of the summit. He said: “The HSE has just launched the Constructing Better Health pilot, which has been a long time coming. Effectively, it’s a test run for a national occupational health service for the construction industry.”