The Health and Safety Executive may introduce strict safety criteria to local building regulations and step up its publicising of convictions as it bids to curb the industry’s death toll.
Addressing a cross-party group of MPs, HSE chair Judith Hackitt and chief executive Geoffrey Podger confirmed the watchdog was considering a series of proposals in a bid to tackle the industry’s death toll.
Early indications show the number of fatalities in the construction sector may have dropped by more than 20 per cent to about 55 in 2008/9. But the HSE remains determined to crackdown further and to prevent an increase in fatalities when activity in the sector picks up.
Ms Hackitt told the Work and Pensions Select Committee that one key to clamping down on bad practice could be stringent new rules within building regulations.
She told the committee the HSE had discussed this recently with a number of parties and that she thought the idea had merit.
Ms Hackitt said: “We want to look at the practicality of doing that because… we think there is a sound logic to the notion that says not only should [an] extension be built to last and to not put at risk those who are going to live in it, it should be built in a way that doesn’t put at risk the people who have to build it in the first place.”
She did, however, warn the committee that cost pressures within local authorities could have an affect on any possible future proposals.
Mr Podger told the committee that the HSE was also looking at ways of increasing publicity about firms convicted of health and safety offences.
He said: “Often for companies it is not the fine that is the punishment, but the publicity around it. This is an area where we want to try and do more.
“We want to try and publicise some of these cases nationally, as well as regionally and locally.”
Committee chair Terry Rooney, who was scathing of the regulator’s enforcement levels, called on the HSE to re-examine the fines being handed down by courts around the country.
He said it was concerning that companies were still fined less for fatalities than for anti-competitive behaviour, and said “something needs to be done” about geographical differences in fines.
“There is concrete evidence of widespread geographic differences in penalties. For example, in the South-west you will get fined a lot more than you will in the North-east,” he said.
Ms Hackitt assured him: “I think both of those things need to be addressed.
“We should not rest where we are, but continue to press for a more equitable viewing of different offences.”
The regulator, however, shrugged off criticisms from the committee that enforcement notices were down for the fourth year running.
Mr Podger said: “I don’t accept at all that there is a downward trend that is just going to manifest itself forever.”
Meanwhile, the relationship between the HSE and construction union Ucatt deteriorated further amid a row over the recording of the employment status of construction workers killed at work.
Ucatt raised serious concerns about the collection of what it called “vital evidence” following fatalities, including data on whether victims were members of the Construction Industry Scheme.
Committee member Tom Levitt asked Ms Hackitt and Mr Podger why CIS data was still not being thoroughly collected, despite a pledge to do so in September 2007.
Mr Podger hit back, claiming CIS data was not relevant to the HSE’s work and that the regulator simply got “the best data that we can”. He said the nature of construction sites made “it more difficult to get a grip of what is going on”.
He added: “From our perspective, which is different to Ucatt’s, we would have the data we need and we would act on it.”
CIS data row
According to information from the HSE, obtained by Ucatt under Freedom of Information, only four construction workers killed in 2008 were working under the CIS. In a further two cases, the regulator said it was not possible to ascertain whether they were or not.
Ucatt said the figures “gravely underestimate the mortality rates of CIS workers”.
Mr Ritchie said: “It is vitally important that this failure to collect crucial information has been exposed.
“The HSE will never properly address the issue while they continue to take an ostrich-like attitude to the problem and refuse to address the fact that the way the industry is organised leads to workers being killed and maimed.”