Construction's appalling safety record is getting worse and will only improve when the industry learns to work together in a non-adversarial way.
It's turning out to be another dire year for safety in the construction industry. Despite the raft of safety action plans drawn up in the wake of the government's safety summit the number of deaths is still rising. From April 2000 to April 2001, there were 106 deaths on construction sites, the highest figure for 10 years - and to the dismay of the Health and Safety Executive the most recent figures look set to be even worse.

HSE chief construction inspector Kevin Myers this week admitted in his report on the safety summit action plans that there are no quick fixes for improving the industry's record. The HSE is relying heavily on the action plans drawn up by an umbrella group of trade associations, but most of these will only really come into their own in the medium and long term.

However, there are other initiatives in the pipeline that could force the construction industry to get its act together sooner. The HSE is set to encourage its inspectors to tackle safety problems at source by talking to designers and clients about their health and safety plans. And in Whitehall, the Home Office is working on a new corporate killing law and an Office of Government Commerce procurement guide is advising public sector clients to drop contractors with poor safety records.

Construction minister Brian Wilson has also urged clients to sign up to a clients charter which commits them to use best health and safety practice in design and on site.

There are strong signs that major contractors are now starting to take health and safety seriously. For instance, the Major Contractor's Group health and safety charter, launched last year, sets tough targets for its members, including a 10% year-on-year reduction in accidents. Many smaller contractors have voluntarily pledged to sign up to the MCG's commitments.

Not surprisingly, the unions are at the forefront of the safety drive. UCATT, GMB and T&G are signing up major contractors and project managers for a roving safety rep scheme. The scheme will permit safety representatives, including union officials, to visit sites to check on safety practices. UCATT general secretary George Brumwell claims that six contractors are already supporting the scheme, including Mowlem and O'Rourke.

But it seems that even the safety issue cannot unite a traditionally fragmented and adversarial industry. The unions' roving reps scheme has failed to win the support of the Construction Confederation, which claims that the scheme is flawed because it will not provide a yardstick for measuring improvements in safety standards.

Brumwell, in return, has accused the confederation of being the "pariah" of the safety world for not backing the scheme, and says its animosity towards the unions is jeopardizing employees' safety.

This is just the sort of row that Myers says needs to be avoided if progress is to be made on safety. The inclination for an adversarial industry to co-operate to achieve health and safety objectives is fragile, Myers warns.

He would, though, be encouraged by this week's news that Mace has submitted a union-backed draft document to the HSE entitled Charter for Change. This looks to ensure a safer on-site environment and is accompanied by the firm's decision to follow union advice on developing short, low-cost training modules.