The Canary Wharf tower crane tragedy has refocused attention on the industry's safety record. Is construction doing enough to make sure it won't happen again?
More than 200 construction workers filed out from building sites at London's Canary Wharf last Thursday morning. They held placards reading "Nine men dead. This must stop"; "Stop deaths on site!"; "Construction kills workers". The men were on their way to a meeting called by construction union UCATT to mark the deaths of three tower crane workers killed a few days earlier on the HSBC site – the latest fatalities to hit the industry. A minute's silence was followed by speeches from UCATT officials before the workers returned to work.

Despite the anger expressed in their placards, the crane operators, electricians, bricklayers and other tradespeople gathered were subdued. Few had any real expectations that things would change. One electrician said: "Management are on the case for a month after an incident, then it's all forgotten. In a few weeks, we'll have crane drivers swinging things above our heads again."

The intensity of the media attention after the accident prompted contractors generally to react defensively. Firms across the UK contacted by Building last week said they did not see the need to rush to reform their safety procedures.

Despite this, there has in recent months been a raft of new safety initiatives – construction minister Nick Raynsford's Respect for People, with its new checklist of working conditions, is one torch bearer. There is the Working Well Together scheme, which is organised by the Health and Safety Commission's Construction Industry Advisory Committee and the Construction Confederation. And there is the spectre of new legislation announced last week by home secretary Jack Straw that will make it easier to prosecute company directors for health and safety breaches.

So, what is the industry's recent safety record? Statistics compiled by the Health and Safety Executive show that there were 66 people killed on sites between March 1998 and April 1999, with nearly 282 people injured every week. That death rate is half what it was a decade earlier but, as the unions argue, it is nothing to be proud of. The HSE's as yet unpublished estimates for site deaths in 1999-2000 suggest a figure of more than 80. These include three men who were killed during a building collapse in Hull in April and four who plunged to their deaths when working on a bridge in Avonmouth last September.

Few would disagree that construction needs to improve this record, but there are myriad problems to be addressed. An influx of overseas workers that do not speak English and do not understand their safety induction is one. Then, there is the pressure to cut corners. The market is booming, so clients are desperate to get their buildings up and earning while it lasts; tight margins may bias managers against doing everything by the book.

Also, the fragmentation of trades on site makes communication between them difficult – even if one subcontractor employs rigorous safety procedures, its workers can be injured by a subcontractor that does not.

Michael Dooley, UCATT's London regional officer, says the growing casualisation of the workforce and the resulting lack of investment in training are endangering site operatives. He also believes that there are more instances of managers bullying safety representatives.

However, one organisation pushing for change with a message designed to appeal to big business is the British Safety Council. It is the largest independent occupational safety organisation in Europe.

The council's director-general, Sir Neville Purvis, says: "The difficulty facing construction is that every job is unique. For subcontractors moving from site to site, there's a particular problem of having to cope with different health and safety procedures on each site. We've been pushing for the industry to adopt a set of standardised procedures to deal with this."

It’s not enough to just hand out hard hats and safety equipment

Sir Neville Purvis, British Safety Council

The BSC sees itself as an honest broker in many situations. Most recently, the management of the Jubilee Line Extension called on its services after a series of high-profile complaints by unions.

Sir Neville explains the council's role: "We carried out an audit of the health and safety procedures on the Jubilee Line Extension. Although they met the legal requirements, they were not best practice.

"We were able to make improvements. But health and safety should never be the last thing you do. It has to be integrated into an organisation's business goals."

Of course, there are other industry-wide initiatives. One HSE inspector responsible for construction singles out Working Well Together for praise. It invites anyone in the industry to focus on an area where improvements in health and safety can be made within their organisations. It also seeks to promote best practice in health and safety industry-wide.

Just about everyone agrees that these initiatives must be accompanied by a culture change.

Sir Neville says he still detects a macho culture in some parts of the industry that can lead both managers and workers to disregard safety.

He says: "There is a tendency for management to shrug its shoulders. But it's not enough to just hand out hard hats and safety equipment. They have to follow through. They have to carry out a thorough assessment of the risks before a job is undertaken. They have to understand that it is management's responsibility to control behaviour." However, Sir Neville and those who think like him may have to wait some time to see tangible change.

Speaking just a day after the crane accident, the managing director of a London-based subcontractor said: "These men are riggers. They live with danger. It's part of the job."

What the workers say

You can’t keep having people dying on site followed by nothing more than a press release. Something’s got to happen beyond shedding tears - Steelworker, Birmingham The thing about Canary Wharf is that every site worker has either worked there or knows someone who works there -Steelworker, Newcastle I’ve been a safety rep. Two weeks into the job, a lad fell three storeys and was badly injured. I filed a report on the accident and was sacked - Electrician, London There seems to be a disregard for safety. We’re out in all kinds of weather. They wouldn’t have worked like that in the 1970s. It’s getting worse, not better - Site safety rep, London There’s a lot of anger. Especially so soon after Hull - Steelworker, Ireland

Will corporate manslaughter legislation

Last week, home secretary Jack Straw put forward proposals to introduce a new criminal offence of corporate manslaughter. Many had been calling for legislation that would mean directors of companies involved in fatal accidents could face imprisonment. However, Straw’s plan falls short of this, proposing only that companies will face unlimited fines and disqualification from their businesses if it is shown that the company was negligent in its implementation of health and safety procedures. Sir Neville Purvis of the British Safety Council says legislation will help concentrate minds but says there has to be a balance between the carrot and the stick. He believes that legislation that threatens imprisonment may merely encourage a bunker mentality among board members.