Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott used his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference to slam contractors for being “indifferent” to fatality and accidents in the industry.

Prescott blamed poor working practices for the increase in site deaths this year and signalled a more punitive approach to companies that breach health and safety rules.

Prescott said: “I have warned the construction industry that this is totally unacceptable. Company directors must take responsibility for safety and penalties will be tougher.”

He added that company directors whose negligence cost lives must not be allowed to hide behind workers and get away scot-free.

The speech, which was broadcast live, drew support from UCATT general secretary and health and safety commissioner George Brumwell.

I have warned the construction industry that this is totally unacceptable

John Prescott

Brumwell said: “At last construction’s appalling safety record is being recognised. I support everything Prescott said. Everything we wanted to hear from the government on the industry’s disgraceful safety record was in that speech.”

But Construction Confederation chief executive Jennie Price said she was surprised by the comments. She said: “I find it extraordinary. Employers are anything but indifferent. There is great concern within the industry; it is a major topic of discussion and there is a real desire to improve safety figures. There has been a lot of work done in recent years, with a number of people starting initiatives.”

Prescott’s views garnered further support from construction minister Nick Raynsford, who said contractors could do more at boardroom level to ensure safety.

Raynsford singled out architects for failing to incorporate safety into design. He said: “If you ask an architect, has he considered safety in a design the answer is no. We can minimise risk and danger by designing it out of schemes.”