Construction’s poor safety record comes under scrutiny as air-conditioning engineer dies on City of London site.

Construction firms are facing a crackdown by the Health and Safety Executive following an announcement that deaths on sites have risen 20% in the past year.

An HSE spokesperson said: “The situation in the industry will be under constant review on an almost weekly basis from now on. We will have to see what extra measures can be taken if safety doesn’t improve.”

The HSE figures, first revealed in Building in June, show an increase of 18 deaths to 86 for the period 1 April 1999 to 1 April 2000.

The news comes the week after a construction worker fell to his death on Balfour Beatty’s £69m Woolgate Exchange project in the City of London.

The victim, a 23-year-old air-conditioning engineer, has not been named. The HSE said he fell eight floors to his death while working in a ventilation duct. A spokesperson added that he had had to be cut out of the ductwork by emergency services.

  “Workers at the site were too distressed to be interviewed by investigators on the day of the accident,” the spokesperson added.

Health and safety commissioner George Brumwell, who is also general secretary of UCATT, has called on the government to intervene to stop what he called the “unnecessary deaths” in the industry. He said government action was needed for the industry to “sit up and take notice”.

He said: “Deputy prime minister John Prescott needs to call a full summit of the industry with unions, employers and the HSE to sort out our appalling safety record. The industry is not responding to Respect for People. Too many people are shuffling paper while workers are getting killed.”

Prescott is scheduled to hold a series of meetings with industry representatives and trade unions, but so far none has taken place.

Brumwell’s comments were made following a memorial service outside the Woolgate Exchange site, which was attended by more than 100 workers from the site.

He said contractor Balfour Beatty refused to allow him on to the site to inform personnel that the service was to take place.

“It was a direct snub by Balfour Beatty. It was a defensive and silly reaction, but I’m sadder that none of the site management thought it worth their while to attend the service,” he said.

Balfour Beatty said it was unaware that Brumwell had asked to visit the site and added it was also unaware of the service. A spokesperson added that it would be inappropriate to comment on the accident at this point.

Health and Safety Commission chairman Bill Callaghan described current safety levels as unacceptable. “We want a step change and we want it now,” he said.

HSE director-general Jenny Bacon said the UK’s top construction companies had all been written to in a bid to set industry-specific safety targets.

Construction accounts for 40% of all HSE prosecutions in the UK and 50% of prohibition notices.