It is estimated that half of all site accidents are caused by hazardous designs. The CDM regulations were intended to change this, but only 8% of architects are aware of their duties under them. The HSE has now lost patience with this situation, and is threatening to put negligent designers in jail.

When design is a crime
When design is a crime

It hasn’t happened yet, but it may be only A question of time. There have been nine successful prosecutions under Construction (Design and Management) Regulations between 1 April 1999 and the end of June 2004. The largest penalty so is a £100,000 fine imposed on steelwork design company Conder Structures after the death of a worker. Now the Health and Safety Executive is getting tougher. It is proposing that clients and their consultants take more responsibility for the safe design of buildings, and those who fail to live up to that responsibility risk a custodial sentence.

The CDM regulations were introduced 10 years ago to ensure that those involved in the design of buildings were competent and understood their duties to protect the health and safety of the people who would construct them. But there is a feeling that the industry in general, and designers in particular, have not done enough to eliminate hazards from their designs. “We have been let down by professional people,” says Mark Poole, construction safety specialist at BBC Property.

“I’m always very impressed by designers’ breadth of knowledge but they always say that health and safety is a challenge. It should be easy.”

The HSE’s changes put the onus on the client to make sure it appoints people competent in health and safety, and for designers to assure their clients of their competency. Chris Morley, executive director of the Construction Clients Group, is keen for designers to take on more responsibility. “We welcome much more attention to the responsibilities of the design community because it’s estimated that half of accidents could be avoided by greater attention to the design decisions on health and safety.”

For the estimated 250,000 designers in the UK, the proposed changes are a clanging alarm bell. In 2003, the HSE found that only 8% of them had adequate training with regard to their CDM duties. “Considering that the CDM regulations came out 10 years ago, that’s pretty shocking,” says Tim Gough, the RIBA’s spokesperson on safety and director of Safety in Design, a not-for-profit company that benchmarks design safety standards.

Peter Caplehorn, technical director at architect Scott Brownrigg, says that many designers are simply ignoring CDM regulations – particularly those working for small firms. “There are an awful lot of people who are not engaged with CDM. There needs to be a greater buy-in,” he says.

Designers do not have much time to adapt to the changes – they are due to come into force in October 2006 after a consultation period that runs until 29 July this year. There is a danger that they will struggle to cope with this regulatory burden, which follows closely the Working at Height rules and a revision to the energy efficiency rules in Part L of the Building Regulations.

Designers always say that health and safety is a challenge. It should be easy

Mark Poole, BBC Property

But there is some good news for architects. The HSE is calling for them to be provided with a clearer brief from their clients at a much earlier stage in the design process, which should help them to produce a safer design.

The executive is also proposing that designers receive additional help to manage their responsibilities. It wants clients to appoint a co-ordinator to manage the project, before any design work has started (see “CDM regs get tough”, below). The co-ordinator, who will replace the planning supervisor, will then liaise with designers and clients and ensure that hazards specific to that project are identified.

Andy Sneddon, health and safety director of the Construction Confederation, says the early brief requirement will force clients to clarify the requirements of their building. “If designers haven’t been told clearly what they need to do, then the client will be liable for problems even if the designer is declared competent.”

Safety in Design has also launched design standards in conjunction with the Construction Industry Council. SiD’s Learning Aims and Standards of Competence should ensure that buildings are not only safely built, but also safely used, maintained and demolished.

“SiD is responding to a cry from the industry,” says Gough. “At the moment there are no benchmark standards for designers to measure their competency against, which means practices do not know how much health and safety training their designers require.”

Liz Bennett, a director of SiD, says the group’s aim is also to provide a forum for contractors and clients. “SiD’s ambition is to discuss calmly and professionally difficult issues that designers have to face before the matter comes to court,” she says.

If clients are to accept more responsibility in the CDM regulations, Bennett says it is crucial they liaise more closely with designers, and extract “better value from the service delivered by professionals”.

For the first time we have a benchmark that measures knowledge and competence in legal terms. It’s a watershed

Greg Brown, Construction Industry Council

In October this year and May next year, basic guidance for clients will be published by the Construction Clients Group and SiD. The clients group has also formed a safety triumvirate with the RIBA and the Construction Confederation to increase communication between the three organisations, and is considering a “designer meets client” conference.

There is cross-sectoral support for SiD’s design standards, but it is less clear how they will be implemented. Stuart Henderson, chairman of the CIC, says: “We are asking organisations within the construction industry to implement the SiD’s Learning Aims and Standards of Competence as an integral part of their own systems.”

He adds that different methods will have to be used depending on the profession. He says they could be included in training courses and in NVQs. Membership of a professional version of the card scheme could be made conditional on a SiD health and safety assessment.

Other methods being considered are lower professional indemnity insurance rates for designers who undertake SiD standards and online learning. But perhaps the greatest incentive for designers is the law. “For the first time we have a benchmark that measures knowledge and competence in legal terms. It’s a watershed. Competency is a legal term in CDM, and a judge or solicitor can refer to SiD for its definition,” says Greg Brown, chairman of health and safety at the CIC.

Contractors, clients, and designers all support the scheme, although many designers will baulk at the estimated costs of £400 per individual for competency assessments.

Caplehorn suggests that regulations could be enforced using tried-and-trusted legislation.

“If health and safety was locked in with Building Regulations, everybody would have to do it,” he says.

In the end it will probably be the threat of prosecution that forces designers to consider SiD standards, especially if coerced by clients worried about their duties. “It’s a shame, but it’s the threat of prosecution that always seems to raise the awareness of CDM,” says Sneddon. Caplehorn agrees: “A higher proportion of prosecutions is to be applauded, I’m afraid, as we’ve seen 10 years of people ignoring CDM.”

CDM regs get tough: The HSE’s proposed changes

The draft CDM regulations aim to improve the management of risk by integrating the roles of client, designer and contractor and clarifying each team’s health and safety responsibilities.

In the proposed changes, planning supervisors will be replaced by co-ordinators, who will provide guidance for clients through the design, use and maintenance of the project. Mark Poole at BBC Projects says not enough consideration is paid by designers to how the building will be used. He cites a recently completed atrium that had an improvement notice served on it by the HSE as soon as it opened because the designer had not provided a safe way of cleaning the glass.

Under the proposals, co-ordinators will have to be appointed by the client before the project starts. This is welcomed by Brian Law, chief executive of the Association of Project Safety, which represents planning supervisors. “It has always been a bone of contention that we were brought into the process too late. Now we will be brought in at the beginning alongside designers and contractors to make sure health and safety is a prime concern from the outset.”

Peter Caplehorn says that co-ordinators will aid communication. “The co-ordinator is a better approach, because it is embedded in the design team. It mustn’t been seen as a planning supervisor with a different name. We need a sea change.” But he is worried by the fact that co-ordinators will only have to be appointed on projects lasting for more than 30 days. “Demolitions and small developments can be just as dangerous, but who will ensure their health and safety?”

Before starting work, everyone must assure their own competence and check that of others, including the competency of the proposed co-ordinator. The client will be responsible for ensuring that the co-ordinator carries out its duties, which Chris Morley of the Construction Clients Group thinks will be a problem.

“A key issue for us is the competency of the planning co-ordinator as well as how clients judge competency,” he says. But, as Law admits, no specific health and safety training is required for planning supervisors. “Greater guidance for clients on what to look out for when they appoint a co-ordinator would certainly be welcomed,” he says.

The new regulations will incorporate the Construction (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, which means that clients and their co-ordinators will have to plan the provision of facilities such as toilets and canteens at the start of the job.

The proposals require the provision of necessary and relevant information, rather than generic documents. This means that architects will have to highlight project specific hazards rather than supply general warnings.

The role of the contractor in ensuring all workers understand safety requirements will continue but only one principal contractor can be appointed under the regulations to ensure accountability.