Construction is on alert as the site death toll rises and John Prescott's safety summit on 27 February approaches. In the first of a four-part series on the safety crisis, Building asks workers about their experiences on site.
Norman Marsh will never forget the day he saw two fellow construction workers die.

"I remember it well because it was the year my daughter was born, 31 years ago," says Marsh, a 53-year-old electrician from Middlesbrough who has been in the industry since he was 18.

"I was working on a site next to where the Millennium Dome is now. Some flooring collapsed and two men fell to their deaths from a very big drop. It was terrible and everybody was saddened, but it was taken for granted; men knew accidents like that happened but kind of took it as a risk of the job. It was accepted." A lot has changed since then. The dramatic increase in construction deaths – up 59% in the six months to September 2000 – has jolted the industry and the government into action. At this month's safety summit, John Prescott will demand new measures to reduce the death toll.

Marsh, today working for M&E subcontractor Balfour Kilpatrick on a site beside St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, welcomes the move and believes that attitudes are already changing. "I've not heard anything about John Prescott's safety summit, but it can only be a good thing because I've heard of a lot of men dying on sites. Today, things are a lot safer, but still men die. It's hard to take the fact that by just going to work each day, you could be putting your life at risk." Marsh says he is impressed with the safety procedures at his present site. A yellow and red card system is in operation and workers are sacked on the spot if they forget their hard hats or boots a second time. "Everybody knows the rules and accepts them," says Marsh.

Less than a mile away, on a Sir Robert McAlpine site at Bishopsgate, workers are still in shock after 34-year-old carpenter Vincent Dooley fell to his death in December. "All the lads now think that little bit harder about keeping safe, but there is still a very big tension surrounding all our work," says a scaffolder, who adds that the accident demoralised the entire workforce.

The scaffolder – who, like many we spoke to, did not want to be identified – is scathing about safety standards. "To be honest, I would go as far as saying that generally throughout the building industry, safety standards are rotten to the core. There's too much push, push, push, for bonus, bonus, bonus, and as a result jobs get rushed, risks are taken and accidents happen." Across the City of London, workers express widely differing views of the situation, suggesting that site safety is something of a lottery. "Safety is non-existent – it's just two safety officers saying 'put your hard hat on and stop smoking'," said an electrician.

But Fred Heath, a 43-year-old diamond driller working for drilling subcontractor Elmcrest on a site at Old Broad Street, tells a different story. "Health and safety has come on leaps and bounds. Six years ago contractors' attitudes used to be: 'I've got another idiot here I can use if you don't want to work for me because the site is unsafe.'" Similarly, workers' attitudes to their own safety vary enormously. Some complain bitterly at lax standards; one electrician says: "The contractors are just fulfilling minimum safety obligations. I had to work on a distribution board and wasn't told it was live at 415 V. A few of our boys got electrocuted." Others take the risks in their stride: "The industry in general is dangerous," says another electrician. "We accept that." Views like this suggest that construction's macho culture is alive and well, with several operatives complaining of excessive health and safety regimes. "It's completely over the top," says a dryliner and ceiling fixer on the Bishopsgate site. "They're so safety conscious now we're not even allowed to use stepladders any more. I work on price work and it really slows me down." An electrician at another site says: "Health and safety can be restrictive in practice; for example, when you're working on a ceiling with a limited amount of space and you're wearing a hard hat." Many of those interviewed cited the presence of foreign workers as a recurring hazard. One electrician says that, on his site, none of the crane operators or banksmen – who are supposed to direct site traffic – speaks English.

A pipe fitter adds: "We have a lot of Russian men working and I've seen some of them come very close to having nasty accidents. It makes you wonder if they understand the instructions given to them, let alone the safety videos." A scaffolder tells the same story: "I know of a Kosovan who broke a mate's leg after he misunderstood what he said and threw a pipe at him." Some firms are taking steps to address the problem. "Where there are language barriers, for example with Russian operatives, they are given additional supervision," says the diamond driller. A scaffolder says only card-carrying Construction Industry Training Board members are employed. And he praises other aspects of safety on his site. "There are fire extinguishers on each floor, proper guard rails, all danger points are blocked and it's generally neat and tidy. We have to work on at least four boards and wear harnesses, and there's a red and yellow card system for disobeying the regulations." However, others claim firms are only paying lip service to health and safety issues. "Normally, all the safety guys are interested in is checking whether you're wearing the right equipment or that structures are secure," says a labourer on a site in Farringdon Road. "Once that's checked, it's job done and they're off.

"To me that's not enough. What should be happening is that safety officers should be telling foremen to slow the men down and take greater care when working. But bonuses don't get paid then, do they?" The labourer says safety officers are outnumbered by security guards by about 10 to one. "Sometimes I feel if enough time and money was spent on safety on sites and not as much on security we'd all feel a lot more confident." When it comes to suggesting safety improvements, many focus on basic measures such as removing trip and slip hazards. "People are always tripping over duct tape that's holding down the scaffolds," says a plumber.

"I've not heard anything about the safety summit but if anything should be top of the agenda it should be a nationwide shake-up of the hazards that lie on the floors of many sites," says a Try foreman. "I would consider the biggest hindrance on site to be slipping – whether it's on loose bricks, tiles or debris, or just because of rainwater." He says he knows of many men suffering from back problems after slipping – but adds that these injuries often go unreported, E E thereby distorting the safety picture.

Poor lighting was another common gripe. "There's definitely not enough lighting on some of the floors, so it can be very difficult to see where we are going," says one operative. "There's poor lighting everywhere, especially in the basement where you can't read the drawings," says a mechanical engineer.

Several call for greater supervision of inexperienced workers. "I can see things from the crane sometimes when youngsters are in danger," says a crane operator. "It's normally not because they're acting stupid but because they're inexperienced." He says problems arise when there are no experienced workers on hand to "take them under their wing and point out the dangers they may have missed".

He wants an "aftercare" system, run by safety officers, to provide continuing supervision after the induction programme. "This would stop new people spending 20 minutes watching a video and then being left to run riot on a busy site." But after half a lifetime in construction, Norman Marsh seems resigned to the fact that accidents will still happen. "This is a good site, but even here a young lad slipped and broke his leg on some loose tiles last Friday," he says. "I don't know what you can do about that."

Death by falling: The grim toll

Falls were the largest cause of death on sites last year, accounting for 25 of the 53 fatalities logged by the Health and Safety Executive between April and August 2000. HSE statistics on the causes of those 25 deaths, reprinted below, confirm many of the fears expressed by site workers:
  • Self-employed roofer aged 72 fell through a fragile rooflight as he was carrying out repairs on an industrial roof.
  • Self-employed painter and decorator aged 63 fell as he was decorating a classroom in a school. It was thought that he fell as he attempted to use a ladder placed on top of a tower scaffold.
  • Worker aged 31 fell from a scaffold which had been erected outside a shop. Possible suicide.
  • Self-employed rigging worker aged 26 was erecting suspended work platforms. He appears to have climbed from the catwalk and over a guard rail. He fell about 35 m and did not have a lanyard attached to his harness.
  • Diamond driller fell through a fragile rooflight that had not been barriered off or covered.
  • Roofer was resheeting a warehouse building when he fell through an uncovered rooflight in an area unprotected by safety nets.
  • Roofer in his early 50s fell through fragile rooflight. He was on roof of warehouse replacing a number of fragile rooflights in a fragile (asbestos cement) roof, also cleaning gutters. Using crawling boards only but with no guard rails. Harnesses not being worn – indeed nowhere on which to clip them. No nets.
  • The deceased aged 53 working off a 1.6 m high tower scaffold cutting brackets from old pipes in a ceiling during a refurb job. The deceased fell back off scaffold which had inadequate guard rails.
  • An advanced scaffolder was dismantling a large tube and fitting scaffold. It is thought that he was attempting to descend to the lift below by climbing down the outside of the scaffold. He used a short length of puncheon, which was only fixed by a single coupler that swivelled out with him. He was wearing a harness but it was not clipped on.
  • Steeplejack aged 43 fell from a ladder on a flagpole. He fell as he was dismantling the access ladders.
  • Roofer aged 37 fell through a fragile roof at warehouse premises.
  • A self-employed builder aged 68 fell while he was redecorating the exterior of a public house. He fell from the edge of a pitched roof above a bay window.
  • A 66-year-old partner in a father and son roofing business was working from his 6 m H-frame tower scaffold, re-roofing domestic premises. The guardrail only extended across the rear of the working platform and he fell from the platform.
  • Builder aged 52 was killed when he fell through a fragile rooflight. He was attempting to repair the asbestos cement roof of an industrial unit at the time.
  • Roofer in his 30s was killed when he fell through a roof sheet. He was carrying some guttering across the roof of a football stand at the time and the netting installed below failed to arrest his fall.
  • Self-employed joiner aged 45 was killed when he fell from a ladder. He was repairing facia boards and it appears that the ladder slipped to one side.
  • Fitter aged 23 was killed when he fell down a vertical section of ventilation ducting. He was involved in the commissioning of the air-conditioning plant for an office block.
  • Labourer aged 38 was killed when he fell from a tower scaffold. He was helping to erect the tower at the time.
  • Welder aged 36 was killed when he fell through an asbestos cement roof at a redundant farm building.
  • Self-employed builder aged 47 was killed when he fell from a tower scaffold as he attempted to add an extra lift. He was rendering domestic premises.
  • Casual worker aged 23 was killed when he fell through a rooflight on an asbestos cement roof. He was powerwashing the roof and stepped off an access board.
  • Two scaffolders aged 36 and 42 were killed when they fell during the dismantling of a scaffold access ramp.
  • Painter aged 53 was killed when he fell into a basement well during the external decoration of residential flats. Scaffold board walkway over the well failed.
  • Steel erector aged 49 was killed when he fell from a steel framework. He was erecting the framework.