It’s one thing to have your site labelled “a tip” by an unannounced safety inspector, but it is surely all the more worrying when that label comes from the Health and Safety Executive’s chief of construction himself.
Not that such an experience would be common to most. Stephen Williams has been far too busy in the office and the boardroom to frequent sites on a regular basis.
But returning from his summer break, and prior to his new appointment as director of operations for London and the Olympics, Mr Williams was in the mood to get his hands a little dirty and headed out to two London building sites. “One rather good,” he says. “The other site was, frankly, a tip.”
He says the good site was one of a larger contractor that had its house in order. The other was a project being undertaken by a much smaller company – one now faced with a series of enforcement orders, Mr Williams adds. “Getting it right is not difficult,” he warns.
“An awful lot of it is housekeeping. But it is critical people give these things thought.”
What the projects had in common was that they were both refurbishment schemes – the focus of much of the HSE’s proactive activities of late.
A swoop on projects in February shut down nearly one in three jobs because of safety breaches and the Government’s safety regulator has continued a rolling inspection campaign since that eye-opening blitz.
And it will only continue, Mr Williams reveals. “We intend to run another nationwide campaign, probably in February or March next year.”
Of the blitzes on the refurbishment sector, Mr Williams says the positive side of it was that in both campaigns “we realised we are targeting the right sector”.
He said the most disappointing thing for him was that despite all the publicity, firms were still failing to keep their sites up to scratch.
In regards to next year’s push, Mr Williams says the HSE will not hesitate to hand out a plethora of enforcement notices if needed. “But I very much hope by then that the sector has really improved,” he adds.
Not that the construction industry as a whole doesn’t have serious problems of its own – namely the downturn.
One of Mr Williams’ main concerns now is the issue of cost-cutting. “We don’t want to see any corners being cut on the excuse of the downturn.”
The HSE is going to be kept busy enough over the period ahead after the Department for Work and Pensions ordered a major investigation into recent construction deaths.
Neither the HSE nor the DWP have been forthcoming with details of the inquiry or have said how far back it will go. But it will include an examination of the underlying causes of fatal accidents in construction and it is hoped it will identify levers for change both within and beyond the health and safety system.
Mr Williams says much work is already under way to try to drive those fatality figures down below the 70-person mark. The HSE is piloting a project for vulnerable workers and Mr Williams says the construction division is also looking to restructure its information management systems to “better identify rogues.”
“There are people who are out to make money and cut corners, and we will be down on them as hard as we can,” he says. The project is aimed at better bringing together the HSE’s resources and information to correctly identify problem areas.
Mr Williams adds: “We will never have unlimited resources, so we want to target our efforts really precisely.”
This means more effectively collating information so the construction team will be able to keep a closer eye on repeat offenders as well as better understand where the real problems are happening.
Construction was the only major UK industry in which the number of non-fatal injuries rose last year. According to the latest figures there was a total of 11,120 incidents in 2007/08, up from 10,849 the year before. And following 72 worker deaths last year, the toll for 2008/09 already looks pretty grim.
With official HSE updates not expected out until later in the year though, Mr Williams refuses to speculate on how this year is faring compared with last year. “I haven’t carefully counted the numbers,” he says.
In truth, it is likely he knows every death of 2008 like the back of his hand. He admits to Construction News that he keeps the details in view while he’s in his office – a constant reminder of why the HSE must always strive to go that one step further.
“I leave them on my desk to remind me what life is about.”
As for his site visits, Mr Williams swears they won’t be his last. “It’s good to get out from time to time,” he says. “Remind myself directly what life is like on site.”
Let’s just hope that the next site reviews are a bit more sparkling.