Work and pensions secretary to crack down on construction safety as research shows deaths and serious injuries have risen most in housebuilding and refurbishment sectors

The housing industry was responsible for almost half of construction deaths in the past year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

A breakdown of figures, seen by Building, show that in 2006/07, 49% of fatalities (37 deaths) occurred in the new-build housing and domestic refurbishment sectors, up from 32% (19 deaths) last year. In other words, the number of fatalities there has almost doubled.

These figures have prompted a government drive, led by Peter Hain, the work and pensions secretary, to improve safety by focusing on the housebuilding and refurbishment sectors.

Hain, who oversees the HSE, will bring together industry leaders next month to tackle the problems that have led to the highest number of construction deaths in five years.

General figures released by the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) last week showed that there were 77 deaths in construction between March 2006 and 2007, compared with 60 the year before. This rate is the highest since 2001/02, when there were 80 deaths.

One third of all work-related deaths occurred in construction.

Hain’s announcement was a welcome surprise to safety campaigners. John Spanswick, a health and safety commissioner and chair of the Strategic Forum, said: “We had no consultation about the meeting, although it is obviously welcome. A significant proportion of fatalities came from these sectors, which haven’t been focused on, historically.”

Two-thirds of the fatalities (67%) occurred on small sites, and many believe improvements need to focus on the less regulated end of the industry.

Shelley Atkinson Frost, the Construction Confederation’s health and safety director, said: “ We’re collaborating with Constructing Excellence to address places where there are uninformed and naive people who don’t understand there has been a change in practices.”

Some were quick to link recent HSE budget and staffing cuts to the rise in deaths. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: “Unless the government gives the HSE more resources, this increase in deaths could become a trend.” The number will fall from 136 to 125 by March 2008.

However, HSE and HSC heads rejected any link between the falling numbers of inspectors and the rising death rate.

Geoffrey Podger, chief executive of the HSE, said: “Inspection can’t be our only vehicle. Past success has been achieved by a mixture of awareness-raising, guidance and legislation, partnerships and enforcement.”