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Accidents will happen

AGENDA - The recent fatal accident at T5 has got people thinking ? if it can happen at a model site, can construction ever hope to get through a year without someone dying? David Rogers and Sophie Kernon report

GO BACK nearly five years to December 2000, a couple of months before the first construction safety summit, that gathering of the great and the good called by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to address the safety crisis blighting the industry at the time.

More construction workers died in the first few days of that particular December than in the Hatfield rail disaster two months earlier. It was a series of human tragedies that passed by largely unnoticed.

Since then most deaths in the industry, predictably and sadly, have gone the same way. Only occasionally an accident has happened that has made its way out of the pages of the construction press and into the national consciousness.

There was the incident at Tebay in Cumbria last February in which four railway workers were mown down by a runaway trailer; a month before, a carpenter died helping to rebuild Wembley stadium; and three weeks ago one man, working on concrete formwork, died at T5 ? the first fatality at Britain's biggest building site.

The death at T5 was bound to shock not only because it involved the loss of a man's life but because of the site it happened on. This was ? and still is ? regarded by many as a model job. Even the unions say so.

Bob Blackman, construction secretary for transport union TGWU, said this week: 'You have got very, very high standards at T5 and the highest effort in terms of health and safety.' It is this kind of testimonial that makes the death of 27-year-old Mathew Gilbert all the more heart-rending:

it wasn't supposed to happen.

But given what has happened at T5 ? replete with the kind of attitude to safety that made the unions drool and the kind of client that many say others should aspire to become ? is it now time to face up and think the unthinkable: will it always happen?

Asked about the death at T5, one senior industry figure ref lected: 'It is perceived as heresy in some quarters to adm it that const ruct ion is dangerous.

'It is hard work to make a site completely safe. T5 has made a lot of effort. At the health and safety summit there was an awful lot of moralising about safety which seemed to amount to: 'if we will it to happen, then it will happen'. That's bollocks.' When health and safety in the industry reached its nadir in recent times, those dark days at the end of 2000 which had seen 150 deaths in the previous 18 months, the Government pledged to pioneer a zero tolerance attitude to accidents in construction.

But is zero tolerance the same as zero accidents? Did even this spin-skilled Government baulk at laying down a zero accidents marker knowing full well it was utterly unachievable?

Bob Blackman, as befits a union man with years of experience in the industry, a man who has fought countless battles to get health and safety at the top of contractors' agendas, does not buy the theory that construction is too dangerous to eliminate all accidents and deaths.

He said: 'The overwhelming majority of fatalities are down to management failures. This is preventable. At T5 there will be a reason given for the death and it will say how it can be prevented in the future. And if it's preventable, then it can be eliminated.' Others are not so sure but are reluctant to be named because of the taboo involved in making such claims.

It can seem callous. Owning up to the inherent risks in the industry can be viewed as throwing in the towel, of letting the downright reckless win.

One senior figure admitted: 'I think it's difficult to talk about eliminating risk. It's about reducing it to a more acceptable level.

'The hardest thing to nail down is the hardcore on site, some of whom are borderline nutters. You can't knock it out of them overnight but, if they change, that's a huge thing.' Charity, indeed, does begin at home. In recent years the annual number of deaths has stubbornly refused to budge from around 70. Vaughan Burnand, chairman of the Major Contractors Group health and safety committee, said: 'People know full well when they are doing something wrong but sometimes they do it anyway, even if they know it's unsafe. Only behavioural changes in everybody, including managers, can change this.' Managers on site have to change but so do the blokes who get their hands dirty. There is a huge element of personal responsibility in all of this. Yet walk past any site and note how many men have got hard hats on;

how many are wearing personal protective equipment;

how many scaffolders are actually using harnesses; how many are wearing boots instead of Reeboks. Is this all the fault of contractors turning a blind eye to safety?

George Stewart is the father of 23-year-old Paul, one of four men who died in the Avonmouth gantry collapse nearly six years ago. What happened that September day still haunts him. He said: 'You can chase men around and re-educate the management to the nth degree but I feel for the men on Terminal 5. It must be a real blow that they have worked so hard but still a man has died.' Firms large and small are pushing to change the mindset of everybody from senior managers to site operatives in all sorts of ways.

Of course too many still have a lax attitude but changes are happening. Mr Burnand said: 'If you don't act to get to the root cause of every reportable accident or a near miss, you can never achieve zero fatalities. There is a danger and risk that leads to every death. However you look at it, the risks are there 30 yards away from you on site.

'I would hope that theoretically zero deaths is possible ? yet the possibility of death unfortunately cannot be removed. But we will keep doing everything we can to cover every single eventuality.' Which brings us back to what might have happened at T5. There is a feeling across the industry that T5 had pretty much ticked every conceivable health and safety box put before it.

Andy Sneddon, the man in charge of health and safety at the Construction Confederation, said: 'What happened was obviously a tragedy but T5 was a fantastic site before and still is. The management will get to the bottom of this.' Mr Blackman accepts that some industries are more risky than others: 'Whichever industry you look at you will always find workplaces that are more hazardous than others.' But he added that construction should not mark itself out as a special case. He said: 'I think these days with new systems such as those in place at T5 you can virtually eliminate the risk of serious injury or death.' One safety expert said things have dramatically improved since the days of 2000. He said: 'Quietly there is a lot to be proud of but no one can say it loudly because construction still kills people.' More does need to be done and what seems disheartening about the T5 death is that BAA was moulding itself into the kind of client one normally expects to see in engineering construction where safety, safety, safety is the mantra.

The raison d'etre of, say, the nuclear and petrochemical industries is not to hurt anyone because licences can be revoked. It is doubtful these industries would tolerate the kind of everyday cavalier attitudes ? extraordinarily cavalier in some cases ? to health and safety that so often are witnessed at construction sites.

The culture change seems to be happening but for some it is not happening quick enough.

Perhaps the final word should go to Mr Stewart. 'I can't ever see there being no deaths but it is a lovely thought, ' he said. 'Safety has to be paramount before you do a single thing on site. But even with the best will in the world, however hard we try, sometimes a man is his own worst enemy.'