Sir John Egan's proposals for improving site safety by overhauling the CDM regulations are likely to have profound implications for the way buildings are designed and constructed – but not everyone is happy.
The wheels have been set in motion. Sir John Egan is embarking on the second phase of his revolution with sweeping changes to the health and safety rules. The strategic forum, which he heads, is to address the worsening problem of accidents on sites by proposing a radical revision of the Construction (Design and Management) regulations. If the proposals are adopted, they will change the way projects are designed, as well as the roles and responsibilities of the construction team. Planning supervisors face the axe, making way for independent safety advisers, clients face greater responsibility for safety, and contractors and consultants will have to prove they are up to the job.

Egan wants to see the CDM regulations changed to force the project team to co-operate on designing out risk, rather than offloading that concern on the planning supervisor. He has always believed that projects can be managed more cheaply and efficiently if everyone involved has a chance to discuss what they are doing before they do it. Now he is saying that these integrated supply teams are the only effective way to reduce site accidents, too.

As with Rethinking Construction, Egan's 1998 report, the message has so far gone down well with the contracting side of the industry. "If they are designing the CDM regulations so that designers and contractors can get together to discuss how to put up a building before a project starts on site, that can only be a good thing," says Bill Tallis, director of the Major Contractors Group.

Egan's strategic forum is planning to contribute two proposals to the Health and Safety Executive's consultation document on construction, and his paper will form the basis of revisions to safety legislation in the new year. The first proposal is that clients appoint an independent safety adviser to act as a single point of responsibility at the outset of a project. The second is that the construction team must be able to prove that they are competent, either through membership of a trade association or an accreditation scheme.

The likelihood is that the government will view these proposals favourably. Not only are they common-sense ways of making designs and working practices less risky, but they fit with the strategic objective of vetting and regulating the industry in general, and smaller contractors and their operatives in particular. And, as an extremely welcome side-effect, they would recruit customers for the government's struggling quality mark and Constructionline schemes.

What will change
The CDM regulations were introduced in 1995 to implement a European directive. They require the client, designers, main contractor and specialist contractors to provide a health and safety plan for a construction project. A planning supervisor is then responsible for ensuring that this task has been undertaken satisfactorily. If an integrated supply team is created at the start of a project, responsibility for safety would be shared – which brings the supervisor's role into question.

The details of Egan's proposals are unclear, but the shake-up in CDM looks certain to signal the demise of the planning supervisor. Brian Law, chief executive of the Association of Planning Supervisors, was in talks with the HSE last week, and he says he was left with the impression that the role will disappear. But he says: "It remains unclear what will happen to the planning supervisor's position."

Law points out that there is a statutory duty to monitor CDM compliance. "The one thing that is certain is that the work carried out by planning supervisors will have to continue under the European Commission directive that formed the CDM regulations," he says. He adds that this would compromise the role of the independent safety adviser proposed by Egan.

The good news is that everyone agrees that the regulations have to change. "Since CDM was introduced in 1994, the number of site deaths have not decreased; if anything, they've increased," says Owen Keating, associate at architect Jestico + Whiles. Tallis echoes: "I've yet to meet anybody that says CDM works." In the year the regulations were introduced, 81 people died on site. In 2000-01, it was 106.

If it means designers and contractors can get together before a project starts, that can only be a good thing

Bill Tallis, director, Major Contractors Group

The bad news is that they do not agree on how. Whereas contractors would happily dispense with the CDM regulations altogether, some architects and planning supervisors argue that they just need to be fitted with sharper teeth. "I would rather see planning supervisors having a proper role than have an integrated supply chain sharing responsibility," says Keating. "With safety issues there can often be a conflict of interest: an architect can be frightened that so much attention to safety will stifle innovation."

The question, planning supervisors argue, is not whether CDM is working, but whether the industry is using the regulations properly. One supervisor at a leading property surveyor believes that there is "a gulf between what firms say they can do on paper and what they do in practice".

Nap Sherwin, associate director of planning supervisor Danny Chalkley, agrees. He says although his core business is supervision, his job is already defunct "because of the current constraints of CDM". There are no procedures for obtaining information of sufficient quality – even if there were, he is not involved early enough in a project to interrogate the design as it progresses.

Contractors respond that they do adhere to the regulations and that it is the design team that is negligent. "The biggest problem with safety [on site] is that the design team pays no attention to the CDM regulations," says Jim Dunn, project director with contractor Holloway White Allom. He claims that the reason CDM is not working is that the job of proposing a safe way to build a scheme is left solely to the contractor. "I don't know of any architectural practice that interprets CDM the same way that contractors do," he adds.

But many in the design team argue that contractors are best placed to understand construction activities. "Often we have to deal with planning supervisors who insist on risk assessments for everything on site. We resist this, not because we aren't concerned but we feel we are not best qualified to deal with those issues," says Jestico + Whiles' Keating.

He argues that a competent contractor should know what risks are involved with putting up a brick wall, erecting a concrete frame, putting up scaffolding or installing windows. "We are in no position to comment in great detail on that sort of thing. We can say that if you are putting up scaffolding one risk will be falling – it is so logical, it is hard to see the point of doing it. We end up writing a risk assessment with very little in it, because the main issues come further down the line when contractors and subcontractors operate on site."

No more buck-passing
The current list of problems with CDM regulations is just one more example of how the industry's well known difficulty with fragmentation turns systemic problems such as health and safety into a lively game of "pass the buck". Egan's proposals aim to prevent this by forcing the project team and its supply chain to take a share of the power, and a share of the responsibility. And, as this would involve building the team and integrating the supply chain, the proposals are on all fours with the Latham and Egan reports.

John Hanley, who looks after health and safety at construction manager Mace, says the principle of the whole project team sitting around the table to discuss CDM and safety sits well with the principle of an integrated supply team. "The difference would be that an integrated supply team would meet at a much earlier stage in the project," he explains.

What Egan's proposals will mean for the industry

  • Planning supervisors to be axed
  • New role of independent safety advisor to be created
  • Clients to face greater resposibility for safety
  • Designers and contractors to provide proof of accreditation