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Refurbishment – and health and safety

Construction has always been a dangerous industry, but the figures for 2009/10 are moving in the right direction, showing a reduction in the number of deaths from 53 to 41.

It is not all good news though, and it is certainly not a time to become complacent, especially for the refurbishment sector.

While most other parts of the industry have made considerable strides in their health and safety performance in recent years, the refurbishment sector shows little sign of improvement. It accounts for less than half  (46 per cent) of total activity in the construction industry yet is responsible for almost three quarters (73 per cent) of fatalities in 2009/2010, having risen from a five-year average of roughly 50 per cent.

Refurbishment is a hugely diverse sector ranging from domestic roofwork undertaken by micro businesses to large scale conversion of commercial and industrial buildings led by major contractors. Injuries and ill-health cover the full spectrum of risks with falls from height accounting for the largest number of injuries and asbestos exposure an ever present danger. In addition there are significant issues associated with structural stability caused by poorly planned temporary works.

Slipping standards

As well as refurbishment work being a key focus of inspections generally, an annual intensive inspection initiative has run for the last four years.  As the table shows, inspectors have found it necessary to serve a large number of notices reflecting the poor standards they find. 

YearSites inspectedNotices served
Jun/ July 20071295426
February 20081108485
March 20091759501
March 20102014691

The initiative will be repeated again in February 2011 and we hope to find much improvement. The inspectors will concentrate on safe work at height and good order (ensuring sites are clean and tidy with clear walkways and safely stored materials) as well as paying attention to other key risks including fire, asbestos and temporary works.

Straightforward basic health and safety principles can make all the difference, such as ensuring there is adequate pre-construction phase information including structural surveys, existing plans (especially details of previous alterations and location of services) and asbestos survey reports. Where structural alterations are being undertaken, or the building is in poor condition, temporary works for shoring, propping and other methods of stabilisation should be carefully planned. This should be with the involvement of competent structural engineers and implemented by competent teams.

The same standards for managing more common risks such as falls and dust exposure are just as achievable on refurbishment projects as they are on new build sites – refurbishment work does not mean those standards should be lowered.

Philip White is the chief inspector for construction at the HSE

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