In the construction industry, health and safety legislation is an integral part of business life and, 40 years on, the challenges are still very real.
Health and safety may not be the most popular subject but 40 years on, the key legislation that governs it has hardly changed.
More than that, supporters maintain that it has been critical in saving thousands of lives and saving employers (and the taxpayer) a significant amount of money.
In 2009, Rita Donaghy (then secretary of state for Work and Pensions) reported on industry safety in One death is too many: Inquiry into the underlying causes of construction fatalities, raising concerns about what she felt were unacceptable continuing fatality rates in the industry.
“The legislation is a healthy looking 40-year old - with enough breath left to blow out the candles on the cake”
Since then, we have seen the Health and Safety Executive focus on the industry with renewed vigour with targeted campaigns and the introduction of a scheme to fine businesses for failings without the need to go to court.
The industry may still be responsible for more than a third of fatalities in the UK workplace, but the number of construction-related deaths has reduced significantly in the last 40 years, from 166 in 1974 to 39 in 2012/2013.
In 2012, construction safety made history with the London Olympics concluding without any construction-related fatalities - the first time in the event’s history - and this was closely followed by a similar success for Scotland in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Illness gaining focus
As well as a focus on safety, the construction industry knows better than many the challenges of occupational ill health.
“It’s no coincidence that the UK as a whole is now rated the third safest country in Europe to work in”
The effect of historic exposures to asbestos and cancer-causing substances are only beginning to have a real effect now, and HSE campaigns in the future around occupational health will continue to have real resonance for UK construction business.
That will be something that we continue to deal with over the next 40 years.
So, has the legislation been a success?
It’s no coincidence that the UK as a whole is now rated the third safest country in Europe to work in (behind Slovakia and The Netherlands).
That said, going forward, the construction industry may feel it faces greater challenges than some.
Although many credit the longevity of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in its current form for its simplicity, secondary legislation aimed at safety in construction, including the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, is often highly criticised for its complexity and impractical approach and is once again under review and subject to reform in 2015.
The industry also continues to face economic challenges that have a significant impact on the ability to resource (and retain) skilled workers.
Additionally, those working in construction may be faced with a global dimension and the need to consider the implications of sending UK workers to countries with less developed safety laws.
These challenges aside, the legislation is a healthy looking 40-year old – with enough breath left to blow out the candles on the cake.
It has performed well for many years, saving hundreds of lives and millions of pounds, which is something to celebrate at least for one day.
Then, tomorrow, it can go back to being the most derided legislation in the tabloid press.
Mary Lawrence is an Associate Director heading up the Health and Safety team at law firm Osborne Clarke.