After Hatfield, John Prescott hauled Railtrack over the coals. In a week when four people died on British sites, he has set his sights on contractors. Can the industry pull back from the brink?
First Railtrack. Now construction. As the safety statistics go from bad to worse, John Prescott is setting his sights on contractors. In the past seven days alone there have been four fatalities – as many as died in the Hatfield rail disaster. They include a carpenter who tragically fell to his death on a Sir Robert McAlpine project in the City of London on Monday. Whitehall insiders say the deputy prime minister is determined to make site safety a personal crusade. And that could mean that contractors will be hauled over the political coals in the same way as Railtrack chiefs.

Following the publication last month of shocking HSE statistics showing 62 people had died at the hands of construction between April and September – a rise on 59% on the same period for the previous year – Prescott has given the industry until the end of February to show that it is tackling the problem. But as the clock ticks away, tension is rising.

As industry leaders meet to draw up defence strategies, they are also becoming increasingly concerned that the agenda is being taken away from them. What contractors are most worried about is the proposal to give unions wider powers in the form of roving safety reps who may have the authority to close down dangerous sites. They also resent being pilloried for the industry's record as a whole – cowboys and all.

But the battle lines are really being drawn over the beefing up of the unions' role. The "roving reps" scheme, to be co-ordinated by the TUC, will involve representatives from UCATT, the T&G, the GMB and the AEEU. It is being drawn up by the Construction Industry Advisory Committee, a body that comprises representatives from the Health and Safety Executive and the industry. Despite the protests of contractors' representatives on the committee, the HSE will pilot the scheme in spring and is expected to unveil more details at a safety summit called by Prescott for 27 February.

Contractors are horrified. Publicly, the line is that roving reps will damage site relationships. Privately, they are also worried that union officials would turn health and safety from a genuine common concern to a means to purely political ends. One said: "Will it be used as an opportunity to recruit members?" Others are opposed to the plan because it gives undue power to organisations that represent less than 20% of the workforce.

However, Labour sources say contractors are wasting their time in rejecting union involvement – and that in one sense, the government must be seen to do something, however rational the objections. Unions still wield considerable clout in government circles and, as UCATT general-secretary George Brumwell observes, with deaths in construction running at two a week, there is no political argument for not backing it.

He says: "There's no problem on the political front as far as we are concerned. John Prescott and [DETR ministers] Michael Meacher and Lord Whitty are backing the plans. Of course they'd rather take the employers with them. But they'll take the bull by the horns if they have to.

"It's not as if employers can point to a glowing record. It's an absolute disgrace. Rather than opposing it, they ought to keep quiet. It's a battle they will lose." Others on the political circuit concur. One says: "Contractors would be better off just taking it on board, buying in the unions and with it making them more responsible."

Brumwell adds: "To say it damages site relationships is absolute bunkum." If the workforce were more involved in discussions about site safety, then there would be no need for this scheme, he says.

They ought to keep quiet. It’s a battle they will lose

UCATT’s George Brumwell on employers and roving union reps

Suzannah Thursfield disagrees. She is the Construction Confederation's safety director and sits on the subcommittee of industry safety body CONIAC, which is discussing the proposals. "We all recognise that safety has to be improved and the need to involve workers. But introducing roving site reps isn't going to solve the problem."

For its part, the HSE is urging contractors to give the plan a go. Says a spokesperson: "We're quite optimistic we can sort out any differences employers might have. We're convinced it's a good idea – we have to try all methods as ideas to try and improve safety. Of course the pilot scheme may find that it doesn't work – and if it doesn't we may have to think again."

In the mean time, UCATT is working on other proposals to improve site safety that it intends to put to individual contractors in the new year. "They'll be aimed at trying to change the health and safety culture at site level, bringing in the workforce and site managers," says Brumwell. But what about the initiatives coming from the employers' side? Brumwell says: "There has been a knee-jerk reaction – whether it's sustainable, I very much doubt." The activity he is talking about is taking place within the the contracting fraternity and allied industry bodies. The Major Contractors Group last week unveiled a five-point plan that prescribes the drawing up of safety criteria to which all members must adhere, the implementation of strict training regimes for all employees throughout the supply chain and the publication of clear, auditable standards for site induction. The MCG has launched a working committee, led by Costain chief executive John Armitt, to push through the proposals in the summer. The MCG's aim is to have the plan up and running in three years.

A cross-industry taskforce has been set up, chaired by Construction Industry Board deputy chairman Chris Sneath, to come up with an action plan in advance of the February summit. The Construction Confederation is also to devote much of its December council meeting to devising a strategy to meet Prescott's target for cuts in accident rates. It also launched an initiative to prevent falls from heights, the largest single cause of deaths on site.

Confederation president John Gains is to host a summit in December that will bring together clients and designers as well as contractors. "Accidents incurred maintaining buildings could be reduced at design stage," says Thursfield.

"If you have a building with a flat roof, it's going to be safer to maintain if there's a guard rail around it – but that's not always thought about by the designers."

The question for contractors is whether all this will persuade the government to stop short of endorsing roving reps. There are areas of common ground: the DETR is sympathetic to the focus on designers, for instance. Ministers are concerned that architects and engineers are not designing buildings that are safe to construct. There are also moves afoot to make health and safety a consideration when awarding public contracts. However, as health and safety has become increasingly politicised, contractors will need more than words and action if they want to keep control of their sites. They will need political nous.

No quick fixes, says MEPC's Kevin Monaghan
On three occasions I have witnessed or experienced the devastating effect that accidents have. On one occasion a man was put in a wheelchair. On another, a man barely into his 23rd year died. I myself was once lucky to survive a fall from scaffolding. I only wish I could adequately express the sense of sorrow, waste and anger that I felt.

Safety has to be improved. But roving site reps isn’t going to solve the problem

Suzannah Thursfield, Construction Confederation

The news that injuries and deaths are rising brings dismay throughout the industry. This is especially disturbing given that the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations have now been in place for five years. Strategic action is urgently needed. However, the knee-jerk introduction of legislation that fails to fully address the complex causes and effects of safety problems would be a mistake. Only a long-term, holistic solution stands any chance of success.

Let us consider some of the issues. First, we need to fully understand the problem. Information on why accidents happen needs to be produced by the Health and Safety Executive, the Environmental Health Office and by contractors. We need to know the number of hours worked, the weather conditions, the contract conditions, the level of duress the victim was exposed to, as well as psychological factors such as his or her level of education, experience and training.

I suspect that, at present, we are working in semi-darkness.

Second, we must ask ourselves if we can use education to prevent accidents. Is it being adequately covered in universities, colleges and schools? Perhaps trainee designers should have compulsory site experience with a health and safety focus. Government must work out a way to get contractors and subcontractors to train apprentices in the self-protection and awareness needed in the hostile and ever-changing environment of a construction site. And how can we eliminate the macho belief that indifference to danger is admirable? Change must come from the bottom, and it starts with education.

Third, we have economic and administrative problems. Despite the best efforts of Messrs Latham and Egan, the industry remains fragmented and at odds with itself. Main contractors frequently complain that they have been forced to take the role of site policeman, responsible for the behaviour of subcontractors and their people, but without the resources or the powers to effect discipline. Let us consider this further, dealing with resources first.

In a competitive tender, site management, overheads, preliminary costs and profit are often the only criteria that client and QS use to compare bids. The main contractor's ability to manage the site is clearly relevant to its ability to do its job, yet it often has to cut this to the bone to win the bid. The subcontractors do the same at their level.

Cost, not safety, is the culture, and the two are often opposed. Consider the tightly bid contract that starts to run into difficulties … the project is late, liquidated damages are looming and the subcontractor is cutting safety corners to catch up … how realistic is it that the construction manager will sack the subcontractor and put its own job in jeopardy? One solution might be for contractors and clients to agree a common standard for the safety resourcing of projects and a formula for calculating it. It could be policed by independent, HSE-approved inspectors with statutory powers. Although safety must be everyone's concern, the role of safety policing must come with single-point responsibility.

Fourth, we must re-evaluate the CDM Regulations. They are expensive to administer and yet seem to have little effect at ground level. Drivers will break the speed limit if there is no prospect of being caught or of minimal punishment if they are. So it is, I believe, with CDM, a kind of form-filling insurance scheme designed to demonstrate that safety was properly considered, but which seems to lose its significance when planning supervisors prefer not to go on site for fear of acquiring unwanted liability.

So what would improve safety?

Increasing health and safety inspectors or changing the macho culture are oft-heard rallying cries for cutting accidents on site but as the problems deepen, the scope of debate is widening. Scrap CDM Regulations
The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations are a source of complaint. Many in the industry argue that the regulations, first introduced in 1995, are nothing but an expensive paperchase that has done nothing to improve site safety. Critics says they should be scrapped, and the money spent on more inspectors. More HSE inspectors
There are only 100 inspectors to police the industry. But the government wants construction to police itself rather than beef up the watchdog – a line that gets a mixed response from contractors. More research
The lack of safety statistics could also be hampering solutions and stifling educated and rational debate. With more collated statistics available from the HSE, the argument is that more lessons could be learned on the causes of accidents, trends and the main perpetrators of bad practice. It might also help firms understand how to cope with the thoughtless behaviour that often leads to accidents – the scaffolder who takes down a bar and then thinks it’s there to lean on later, causing a fall, for example. Stop cutting corners
Pressure to complete jobs on time as the market heats up, inexperience and understaffing, together with concerns that clients and QSs are pushing down the costs of preliminaries, are also suggested as contributory factors. Ditch the macho culture
The industry’s culture is often cited as a reason for the dire accident rates. Although it can’t be changed overnight, many point to the oil and gas industry where safety at all levels is second nature and incidents have been cut after disasters such as the Piper Alpha fire shocked the industry into action.

The cost of poor safety

Routine site accidents at an £8m supermarket development wiped out 8.5% of the tender price, according to an HSE case study. This equated to an annual loss of £700 000, the HSE calculated. The study, published in the Movement for Innovation’s new Respect For People report, found that:
  • £41 680 was lost to accidents because of inadequate planning
  • £26 384 was lost to accidents because of poor supervision
  • £500 was lost through six cases of forklift trucks dropping their loads, potentially causing major injury or fatality
  • £2700 was lost to vehicles and cranes hitting or running over things, again posing a high risk to workers and pedestrians