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Industry in spotlight after tragic week

Sections of the construction industry have been accused of “putting two fingers up to the law” after it emerged that six workers had died on-site in just five days.

The fatalities, which occurred in five separate incidents across England from 18-22 October, prompted calls for a renewed crackdown on parts of the industry. The last comparable week was in November 2009, when there were six fatal accidents in seven days.

Details of which contractors’ sites last week’s deaths occurred on have not been released. All deaths have been ruled non-suspicious and passed to the Health and Safety Executive for investigation.

HSE chief construction in-spector Philip White said he would not comment on these specific incidents, but the deaths should remind the industry how much work still needed to be done. He said the HSE would begin a period of intense enforcement targeted at the accident-prone refurbishment sector during
early 2011.  

Mr White told Construction News: “Ill health stems partially from lack of skills and partially from ignorance. There are still many firms putting two fingers up to the law when it comes to health and safety.

“Refurbishment will be a priority as part of our work-plan throughout the coming year, and all efforts will be focused on this for three or four weeks.”

The tragedies came in the same week the HSE released figures showing a significant fall in the number of recorded construction deaths and injuries in the year to March 2010.

HSE figures released in June showed there were 42 fatal injuries to workers in construction in 2009/10, 12 of whom were self- employed.

Three in four construction fatalities occur on small projects run by small contractors. One health and safety manager at a large contractor expressed frustration that a lack of compliance on small projects was giving the industry a bad name.

“These small firms are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives,” he said.

British Safety Council head of policy and public affairs Neal Stone said the approach towards health and safety at major projects, such as for the 2012 London Olympics, should be used as a guide for others.

“Major projects are often examples of the way projects should be run,” he said. “It is essential that other areas are targeted. The level of non-compliance in the refurbishment sector is deeply worrying and frightening.”

The Department for Work and Pensions has revealed that the HSE’s budget will be cut by 35 per cent following the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Mr White said the HSE’s agreement with the Building Control Alliance, struck in September, would allow it to “get more eyes on the ground”, despite its recent budget cuts. Members of the BCA could act as preliminary inspectors, notifying the HSE of sites to pay attention to.

But Alan Ritchie, general secretary at construction union Ucatt, said construction workers could face extreme dangers when the construction industry recovers.

“Inexperienced employers could place them in danger,” he said. “Now there is the genuine possibility that the HSE, whose role it is to ensure workers’ safety, will be denied the resources to perform its role properly.”