The Health and Safety Executive has warned that it may be forced to abandon preventative work if its resources are cut after the election, despite the fear of more deaths when building work picks up.

Philip White, the agency’s chief construction inspector, said: “At the moment we are 50% reactive and 50% proactive. That balance has changed over the years and we’re more proactive than in the past. But if swingeing cuts happened we’d become more reactive again, and more about investigating accidents.”

The HSE’s preventative work includes campaigning, inspection and research. Neither of the main parties has specified cuts to the HSE, but both are targeting quangos.

When asked if cuts would inevitably lead to a rise in deaths, White said: “I’m not convinced by that argument. We’d like more resources, but don’t assume that if you take 10% of our resources away there would be a 10% rise in accidents. Also, it’s not down to the HSE to ensure health and safety on site. The duty in law falls on those running sites.”

we would become more about investigating accidents

philip white, hse

Building examined fatality figures for 2009/10, which may change before being officially released in summer, and found 43 people died in the industry. That compares with 53 in 2008/09 and 72 in 2007/08. White said it was impossible to know whether the drop was owing to reduced man hours or better work practices, but warned against complacency.

He also warned that deaths might rise as the economy strengthened. “When construction picks up, inevitably more workers come in – usually young males who are not aware of the risks. We need to make sure that the figure does not rise because of that, but it did following the last two recessions.”

New tower crane regulations came into force this week, requiring that the HSE be notified when a conventional tower crane is installed on site.