Six months after the government warned construction to improve site safety or face the consequences, the death toll continues to mount. Is the industry now living on borrowed time?
Early this month, a horrific accident shook the industry. A two-tonne electrical cabinet fell on Cormack Nordon, a 44-year-old subcontractor working on the Waitrose building site in Canary Wharf. He was decapitated.

The accident happened in the same week that the Health and Safety Executive revealed that site fatalities in the year to June have risen by almost a quarter to 106, the highest toll in a decade and more than one-third of all deaths in Britain's workplaces. And it happened six months after the safety summit called by the government in response to last year's shock rise in deaths.

At that summit, deputy prime minister John Prescott warned the industry that if it didn't get its act together on safety, he would introduce punitive legislation. Spokesmen for construction responded by promising a 40% reduction in site deaths and serious injuries by 2004/5.

Now that commitment is bound to be regarded with some scepticism, and nobody is sure how much time the industry has left to put its house in order.

Many in the industry point out that it could be too early to assess whether the targets set have been met: the latest HSE figures only cover the first four months after the summit. Ian Davis, director-general of the Federation of Master Builders, says: "Even the most recent figures show that there is still a potential lag. It's going to be difficult to detect any change."

The first signs of a tighter regulatory regime are about to become apparent. The Health and Safety Commission, which is in charge of HSE policy, has responded to prodding from a parliamentary select committee by making moves towards taking a tougher line with firms that endanger their workers. From next year, inspectors will be asked to increase the number of prosecutions after accidents, to investigate fatalities more rigorously and to serve more improvement notices on incompetent firms.

This new policy is being overseen by Kevin Myers, the executive's chief construction inspector, who is emerging as a key figure in the relationship between industry and government. Myers will give up his responsibility for safety in the Home Counties to concentrate solely on the construction sector, and he will report on the industry's progress at the Working Well Together conference in October – the follow-up to the summit in February.

His attitude reflects the harder line. "I do not want to hear what people think everybody else should be doing," he says. "I want to know what each individual body has achieved. It is time for the things promised in February to start being implemented."

I want to know what each body has achieved. It’s time for the things promised in February to start being implemented

Kevin Myers, HSE chief construction inspector

To help this come about, there is likely to be a qualitative change in the way the HSE interacts with the industry. It has become a cliché that safety should be designed into the construction process, so inspectors will be encouraged to interview designers and clients to ask them to explain working relationships and management procedures, rather than just visiting the construction site.

One construction inspector said this would be a much more effective method of ensuring that firms are implementing measures to make their sites safer: "Rather than just shouting at brickies and scaffolders, they will try to tackle problems at source." But Brian Law, chief executive of the Association of Planning Supervisors, thinks there is still a cultural problem in the industry, especially with clients and designers. "They still see safety as the contractor's problem," he says.

Running parallel with the HSC's policy debate are the initiatives being prepared by the firms themselves (see box opposite). Contractors, it seems, really are intent on delivering safer sites – and they are prepared to set aside commercial rivalry to do so. Tony Wheel, Carillion's safety director, believes that health and safety concerns are producing a more co-operative outlook among contractors. "People are recognising that as a group we can achieve more than we can as individual companies. There is no rivalry in health and safety issues," he says.

Evidence of this new outlook can be found among Construction Confederation companies outside the Major Contractors Group. Many have pledged to sign up to the MCG's commitments and targets, including a 10% year-on-year reduction in the industry's accident rate.

The safety drive is also taxing the minds of the industry's trade associations. For example: the British Constructional Steelwork Association's Safe Site Handover Certificate Scheme, which comes into force tomorrow, will require contractors to complete a safety checklist before handing a site over to steel contractors. Meanwhile, the Construction Product Association has commissioned research to look into the impact of the materials sector on site safety. "We want to see if the way materials are delivered and used on sites affect safety," explains chief executive Michael Ankers. The Electrical Contractors Association's drive to ensure that its members are fully aware of safety issues includes a health and safety week in October. This will start with a conference to introduce the association's Zero Accident Potential programme and outline methods of attaining safety objectives.

The hole in these initiatives is that, although the larger companies in the industry are increasingly committing themselves to tackling the safety issue head on, this seems yet to filter through to the small and medium-sized firms – and most fatal accidents occur on small and medium-sized sites. Major contractors carried out 35% construction work last year, but 10% of fatal accidents took place on their sites. "It's not the bigger sites that are not safe," argues one health and safety manager on a large redevelopment project in London. "We're the ones being held accountable, but it's the small five-man site that's really dangerous for workers and the public."

The problem for the larger firms is that, if they entirely eliminate deaths and injuries from their sites, that will only prevent one death in 10 – and may not prevent their being subjected to unpalatable new regulations (above all, the introduction of roving union safety representatives).

What are contractors doing? - Some steps the industry is taking to improve safety

Carillion is concentrating on designing out safety risks, which is especially relevant for PFI schemes that have long gestation periods. The contractor is also committed to using precast concrete instead of reinforced concrete, wherever possible. This means that work is done off site and workers do not have to manually reinforce the concrete – a task involving working at height and which can induce hand-arm vibration syndrome. Balfour Beatty-Amec Joint Venture
Workers on the Balfour Beatty/Amec joint venture redevelopment of University College hospital in London have been given an extra incentive to follow safety practices: each month, health and safety manager Brian Parish hands out £100 to the worker who has shown the most safety awareness and pins their picture to the wall of the canteen. Mowlem
This firm is getting tough with its staff: it has dismissed four employees for breaches of safety policy this year. Mowlem’s policy includes a yellow-card system, in which staff are warned for less serious safety lapses, such as failing to wear a hard hat, but are instantly dismissed for serious breaches (if their actions could have led to a serious accident). The firm is also testing special beanbags that are placed at the bottom of ladders to prevent injuries from falls. Rokbuild
The West Country contractor has entered a partnering agreement with Plymouth-based safety consultant SSG. “The link-up means SSG can be involved in projects before they go on site, rather than just acting as policemen,” says health and safety manager Digby Cantello. Rokbuild is also funding training courses for its main subcontractors – it hopes to train its subcontractor workforce fully in two years.

Building’s safety summit revisited

Six months after Building invited some industry figures with extensive site experience to discuss the issue of health and safety, do the participants feel anything has changed?

Paul Sims, project director, Bovis Lend Lease

Bringing everyone on board is really important. When we reached 250,000 hours on the Mid-City Place project without an accident we gave out Swiss army knives and key-ring torches. It showed everyone that we recognised their contribution. Now we’re thinking of what to give them if we get to 500,000.

Matthew Riddick, senior project manager, Mansell

Our last site was next to a Skanska/Costain joint venture and I noticed that communication between us and them did increase after the summit. We also had talks when we visited each other and gave advice on what to watch out for. Extra briefings helped to focus workers and give them a direct understanding of what’s relevant.

John Mead, senior team member, Movement for Innovation

I think we have improved; not as quickly as we’d like, but with an industry so fragmented it is difficult to find a way to speak to everyone. The level of awareness has risen; there is an understanding of a problem. But then I don’t know how many people are doing anything as a result.