The number of construction-related deaths has risen for the first time in four years, according to initial figures collected by the Health and Safety Executive.
The provisional number of fatalities in the 12 months to April 2011 will be published this summer. Chief construction inspector Philip White confirmed there were likely to be more than the 42 recorded in 2009/10.
It is the first time fatalities have increased since 2006/07 when 79 people were killed.
While the HSE would not be drawn on the exact number of fatalities for the year as they are subject to change, it is thought the increase will be significant.
Mr White said the figures were particularly disappointing as fatalities usually drop in line with activity during a downturn.
But he acknowledged that “corner-cutting” in recessions was inevitable.
He added: “When things pick up you tend to get a lot of new and inexperienced people coming in and for construction that tends to be young men who are not risk aware.
“At the same time, you find companies can expand very rapidly and systems and procedures can’t keep up with that.
“We have certainly seen that the last couple of times we have come out of recession.”
Mr White also confirmed reports of clients “asking for too much” and squeezing contractors’ margins “to the extent that health and safety is going to suffer”.
“Some of those issues might not feed through for two or three years so clients need to be aware that they have responsibilities under the regulations to ensure there is an adequate resource for health and safety,” he said.
Mr White told Construction News that last year had seen an unusual level of multiple fatalities, with three incidents in which more than one person was killed.
The first occurred in October 2010 during a particularly tragic week for construction when six people were killed in five separate incidents. Two men were killed by a brick wall collapse at a site in Worlingworth, Suffolk.
This was followed by an incident at a Claxton Engineering site in Great Yarmouth on 21 January when four men were killed by a collapsing steel structure.
The most recent incident included a father and son who died after a concrete roof collapsed at a site in Leicestershire in February.
Mr White said: “It is unusual to get three multiple fatalities in a year and they are all around structural stability-type issues.
“It is disappointing for everyone concerned and all three incidents are a timely reminder that people need to get their temporary works in good order.”
The validated fatality figures are expected to show a continuation of the trend away from incidents on major sites towards smaller jobs.
Fatal accidents in the traditionally SME-dominated refurbishment, repair and maintenance industries have risen as a proportion of total construction deaths from 40 per cent in 2004/05 to 69 per cent in 2009/10.
The HSE is in the process of re-examining its approach to the industry after losing 201 staff in a voluntary redundancy process earlier this year.
Mr White confirmed that 24 construction inspectors recruited from industry on a two-year basis in 2009 would not have their contracts continued when these come to an end in June.
He said the new focus would recognise the “maturity” of large contractors after a culture change over the past 10 years that has seen radical safety improvements.
“We know they have changed their culture but we can’t stand still so we are going to challenge them differently at a senior level and won’t be doing so much site activity,” he said.
This will free up resources to increase the number of visits to smaller firms and continue the focus on asbestos and refurbishment schemes, he said.
The move comes after employment minister Chris Grayling set out government proposals to reform health and safety by cutting down activity in low-risk areas and funding visits with higher penalties for offenders.
Construction union Ucatt has warned that the proposals could jeopardise worker safety. Acting general secretary George Guy warned of a potential surge in deaths following the recession.
CITB-ConstructionSkills head of health, safety and environment strategy Kevin Fear said: “It’s concerning to see an increase in the number of deaths, as one death is one too many for the industry.
“As a cost cutting measure in times of economic hardship, training budgets are sadly often the first to suffer.”
Mr Frear pointed to a recent CITB survey which found that 8 per cent of employers in the sector had scaled back health and safety training in 2010.
“The HSE’s expected fatality figures suggest that these cut backs may have had significant implications for worker safety,” he added.