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Give the HSE some real teeth

AGENDA Viewpoint

The self-employed must be targeted if health and safety is to really improve, says Tony Willson

WE ARE consistently hearing positive comments about the fall in casualty figures in the construction industry - most of them put out by the Health and Safety Executive.

Their main cheerleader is Kevin Myers, chief inspector of construction.

In his 2003 annual report he said: 'There is evidence of real progress in delivering the action plans.'

Then in June this year, referring to the FaTaL Risks campaign, he said: 'I am pleased to see evidence of some improvement.'

His confidence begs the question: Is the executive really looking into all the statistics, or only addressing half the industry?

Yes, deaths and major injuries to employees were reduced by 4 per cent between 1998 and 2003. But this is only the bright half of the story.

The sad truth is that the figure for self-employed construction workers is a staggering 81 per cent worse. It is this sector of the industry that needs greater motivation to be safer.Where is the incentive for a self-employed person, often working six days a week, to take a day or two off to undergo safety training?

Even when they are concerned to improve their health and safety knowledge, are they being encouraged to do so? I heard recently of self-employed workers who asked about attending a course and were told the option was not open to them because they were not an employee of that contractor.

Companies of any size seem to be adopting structured training but it would appear their motivation is more compliance than choice - mainly because their clients or the directors do not want to land up in court.

With today's dearth of skills, there is also the increased possibility of a site manager not asking too many questions about workers' actual knowledge of safety procedures.

Does the possession of a CSCS Card make it all OK? If a worker does the H&S Touch Screen Test it does not mean he has been trained.

As with any person taking a test where no actual learning is involved, you read what you have to in order to pass, but without putting it into context.

We need training - not reading - to make a difference.Under the Republic of Ireland's Safe Pass system a full day's training is compulsory for everyone who goes on a site and employers will be prosecuted for failure to enforce it.

The cost of the training is around £80 for the day but the main advantage is that, employee or self-employed, everyone on site has to have the card.

Novice motorcyclists in the UK undergo Compulsory Basic Training with a day during which there is classroom learning as well as practical instruction. If we do it to reduce motorcycle casualties, why can't we do the same for the construction industry?

Is it too much to ask that the HSE or CITB get some teeth and tell employers what they must do? CSCS Cards would have failed abysmally if it were not for the Major Construction Group's insistence on them but now it is the vast number of smaller companies questioning the necessity of the process.

If we really want to see an improvement in the health and safety of self-employed people in construction we have to target them, as well as employers, and look to making compliance compulsory.

Tony Willson is managing director of outsourcing specialist Helmsman, based in Colchester