The construction sector's safety standards have come on in leaps and bounds since Stephen Williams joined the industry 12 years ago. But there is still a long way to go, the Health and Safety Executive's chief inspector for construction tells Joanna Booth
STEPHEN Williams joined the organisation almost by accident.
In fact, he joined because of an accident. The career first came to his attention when there was an incident at the Philips electronics factory his father ran.
'An inspector arrived to investigate the accident and my father pointed out what a useful job it was, ' he says. 'I looked into it, decided that was true, saw it allowed you to get out and about and made up my mind to join.' He started out on the ground, inspecting factories under railway arches in south London. His first experience of construction was somewhat unusual.
He says: 'I began on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which is somewhat a typical for the profession.
Then I worked on the QEII Bridge at the Dartford Crossing, another exciting project. But I was also inspecting general sites around Kent, so I got a good grounding in all aspects of the industry.' In the 12 years since he was trailing around Kentish sites the industry has improved dramatically.
'I'm very impressed by what I see on sites, ' he says.
'Good security, proper inductions and comprehensive use of personal protection equipment are the norm.
Walkways are marked, transport arrangements sorted and the public are well protected.' He has the opportunity to see many sites in action even without special effort, as the area around the HSE's headquarters on London's South Bank is littered with tower cranes.
He credits large firms with having driven a change of attitude in the industry.
'The best have zero tolerance for unsafe practices, ' he says. 'They have recognised the moral case and seen that good safety makes a site efficient.
The push must come from chief executives down to site managers and has to be embraced at every level. Culture is the hardest thing to change.' But he believes changing the safety culture is possible, pointing to his previous sector of employment, the rail industry, as an example.
'It took a long time, ' he says. 'You need to engage people, win hearts and minds. But enforcement has a place too ? there's the carrot and there's the stick.' Mr Williams was involved in the drafting of the Construction, Design and Management Regulations and believes they are of the utmost impor tance in improving safety on sites. But he admits the need for the regulations to conform to European regulations has presented problems.
'Getting clients' duties right is a real challenge, because they come in all shapes and sizes and the European Commission directive does not exclude domestic clients. There are large, sophisticated organisations with a high level of competence and repeat business ? supermarket chains, the Highways Agency. At the other end of the scale there could be a dentist having a small extension to his commercial premises.
How to capture in law what is reasonable for the complete spectrum is crucial.' The revision of the regulations is currently being undertaken by Mr Williams' colleagues, and the aim is to have them ready for October.
'It's a very tight deadline. I'd prefer them to be right than rushed through to meet some arbitrary deadline. The Health and Safety Commission is steering it on key aspects.' While Mr Williams is confident he can affect large companies by targeting them personally at board level, small and medium-sized enterprises are more difficult to make an impact upon.
'Major contractors clearly have an effect on the smaller players supporting their sites.
'But that cascade effect can only take us so far in imposing health and safety. We have to look at initiatives to reach them, ' he says.
With 90 per cent of construction companies employing fewer than seven workers it is imperative that good practice is spread to small businesses.
Currently the HSE is running awareness days, on which smaller firms are brought together at larger sites to demonstrate the top five causes of accidents and ill health and the means of preventing them. A roving white van tours the country demonstrating good practice.
'We will be reshaping our proactive programme, ' says Mr Williams. 'We will begin designing future initiatives to build on the current work later this month.' Mr Williams went back to a Channel Tunnel Rail Link site, this time at Paddington, earlier this month. He was there to launch the HSE's latest initiative to encourage good order on sites, called Watch Your Step (see above, right).
The reason was as familiar as the location for Mr Williams.
'After 12 years we are still injuring and killing workers in the same ways.
The causes of accidents remain stubbornly the same. We must change the culture of the industry, but it will take years. To pretend otherwise would be unrealistic.'