Although the fatal workplace incidents record of the UK construction industry compares well with other countries, the fatal incident rate still remains over four times the average in comparison with all other UK industries. Construction remains the largest contributor to worker fatalities for any sector.
Figures show that the larger construction companies have shown a steady improvement over the last decade, unfortunately the same cannot be said of small contractors. A decade ago 30% of deaths on site could be traced back to companies with less than 10 employees. In 2010, this figure rose to 65%. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has identified there is a need to find new ways to help small contractors understand and meet their obligations in a proportionate way.
Over the last decade there have been improvements in health and safety regulations and this includes the incorporation of the Construction Design and Management Regulations 1994 and the Construction Health, Safety and Welfare Regulations 1996 into one set of regulations, namely the Construction Design Management Regulations 2007 (CDM). The revised regulations were intended to make it easier for those involved in construction projects to comply with their health and safety duties.
The CDM regulations apply to most common building, civil engineering and engineering construction work, the regulations now ensure small construction jobs are covered, even if there are only a couple of workers on-site for a few days.
The specific changes to the regulations included a new duty on designers to ensure that their designs met the necessary health and safety regulations. In addition a client was no longer able to appoint an agent to take their legal duties.
Under the CDM regulations those who are involved in site work have responsibilities to check working conditions are safe before work begins. They also need to ensure that the proposed work is not going to put others at risk, requiring planning and organisation.
The regulations were aimed at improving the overall management and co-ordination of health, safety and welfare throughout all stages of a construction project with a view to reducing the large number of serious and fatal accidents in construction.
Unfortunately the latest (provisional) figures from the HSE show that the number of construction deaths rose to 50 last year, up from 41 the year before. This is despite falling workloads during the recession and there is now mounting concern that the industry safety record is starting to slide in the downturn.
As part of the HSE's ongoing evaluation of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, the health and safety records of smaller construction firms will be scrutinised, since statistics suggest that it is the smaller firms, and the smaller projects (especially refurbishment) that account for around 60-70 per cent of the fatalities in construction.
The HSE Chief Construction Inspector, Phil White has advised that, “the majority of deaths continue to be on small construction sites. Big construction companies have shown steady improvements over the last decade and we want to see smaller firms take a similar lead. This is not about money, it’s about mindset – planning jobs properly, thinking before you act and taking basic steps to protect yourself and your friends.”
The HSE has encouraged the industry to “help itself”, asking major contractors to help smaller companies outside its immediate supply chain. Realistically and in the current economic climate this is unlikely since many large contractors have many other difficult issues to deal with.
In light of Mr White’s comments there appears to be a real call for small construction companies, to step up to the challenge of keeping the workplace safe for their employees and help to reduce the rising number of UK construction fatalities. It is likely that these companies may need to approach specialist risk management companies for assistance in their bid to reduce workplace fatalities.
Whilst the CDM regulations are being evaluated, the Head of the HSE Construction Policy Unit, Anthony Lees, does not believe there would be 'significant changes' made to the existing regime, although they acknowledge there are still some smaller construction firms that are not following the rules. The HSE confirmed that there must be an increase in on-site monitoring in order to prevent these continuing breaches from occurring. However since the government recently announced the HSE’s budget will be cut in the coming years, it is difficult to envisage how this will be carried out.
Atiyah Malik is a safety, health and environment partner at national law firm Berrymans Lace Mawer LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)