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Hidden truths, broken hearts

AGENDA

Last week construction union Ucatt unveiled a memorial statue as a tribute to workers who lost their lives on building sites. But for bereaved families, the search for answers can be a long one. Russ Lynch reports

THE TROUBLED Wembley stadium project has of course provoked plenty of media interest. But there is one widow who has to change channel whenever she sees the latest development in the fiasco on television.

That woman is Mary O'Sullivan, the wife of Patrick O'Sullivan, a carpenter who was killed by a falling work platform in January 2004 while working on the north London site for subcontractor PC Harrington.

Mary and her two children, John and Maggie, are still waiting for answers more than two and a half years after their cherished husband and father died.

The frustrated family has turned its anger on the Health & Safety Executive over the slow pace of the investigation into Patrick's death.

Mrs O'Sullivan said: 'We are still waiting to have an inquest into Pat's death. We had a meeting with the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the HSE in August but then heard nothing more.

'The HSE said there were thousands of papers to go through and it would take years rather than months. I just want straight answers about what happened.

'They hide behind the fact that there hasn't been an inquest and say they can't discuss the matter. But that's not good enough - it has been more than two and a half years. The HSE in my eyes are useless.'

Her son John added: 'The police have been fine but with the HSE it is a different story. This thing has been like a dark cloud hanging over us since the day it happened. We're stuck in the same place and we won't be able to move on until we get some answers.'

The search for reasons in cases such as these is long and sometimes fruitless. Caroline Clark, the sister of one of the three men who died in the Canary Wharf crane collapse in 2000, waited more than five years for the HSE to turn up 'no conclusive explanation' for the incident. The investigation cost £300,000.

She was left embittered by the result and the organisation's handling of the probe, saying: 'They didn't even let the families know that they were going to print the report; didn't even get in touch before they published it.

The whole thing took so long, was so drawn-out, and it came to zero. It's as though they were shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.'

The painfully slow pace of official answers means that relatives themselves often piece together a picture of the incident themselves from rumour and from friends of the deceased.

Mrs O'Sullivan added: 'I've learnt many things about what happened on that day at Wembley but it all comes from people who won't speak to the HSE.'

Last week the HSE published the results of its investigation into the death of Simon Ball - killed by a concrete beam in Hertfordshire in 2002 when a faulty lifting tackle pin broke - but the South African supplier, McKinnon Chain, cheated justice because it had ceased trading. At least there was some kind of an explanation for Simon's distraught mother, Helen - but no prospect of a day in court.

The seeming intransigence of officialdom following deaths in the workplace has on occasion stung friends and relatives into direct action. This happened in the case of temporary worker Simon Jones, who was killed by a crane in an industrial accident on his first day at work in 1998.

The Simon Jones Memorial Campaign was so frustrated by the initial reluctance to prosecute offending firm Euromin that it mounted a picket of buildings including the Crown Prosecution Service, the HSE and DTI headquarters.

Colin Chalmers, a friend of Simon's, also hit out at the HSE. He said: 'Health and safety in this country is a joke at the moment and we weren't happy at the HSE. If I was going to murder somebody I'd do it at work, because at the moment it would be years before something happened.

'The HSE is under-resourced, but the main problem is that it is an agency of a Government that prides itself on its liberalised, light-touch regulation economy. This doesn't promote safety at work and it never will.'

Eventually the case made it to court. Euromin beat manslaughter charges but was eventually prosecuted for health and safety offences in 2001.

In the HSE's defence, investigations involving construction fatalities are complex affairs - especially ones involving mechanical failure in intricate machinery such as cranes. The key problem is the lack of resources to push through the investigations quickly.

In 2004, the Treasury's spending review froze the HSE's funding at £286 million until the end of the 200708 financial year, a cut in real terms. The HSE's diversion of more resources to preventative advice work and away from investigative activities also saw the amount of prosecutions fall to 712 in 2004-05, compared with 963 in the previous year. The HSE has also devoted 10 per cent of its resources to liaison with the police on more high-profile cases.

At site level the inspectors themselves have too much to do to move things along at the pace the families of the bereaved would like. While the HSE says it is committed to keeping the families of victims fully informed - something the families take some issue with - it cannot initiate any legal proceedings until the inquest has taken place, which can take more than a year.

One inspector told Construction News: 'Probably what takes the longest time is the evidence-gathering, the taking of statements and all that goes with it. When there is a fatality there will be something like 30 police and one - maybe two - HSE inspectors on site. The investigation suffers as a result. I've handled one fatality when I was on my own.

'If there are around 100 inspectors in construction they will have at least six prosecutions on the go at any one time. The workload means that you are never as thorough as you could be - our instructions are to stop gathering evidence when we have enough to gain a prosecution under the Health and Safety at Work Act . When you have finally gathered the evidence you still have to wait for a coroner's inquest and the lawyers to decide whether the case is worth taking to a prosecution.'

He added: 'I compare it with police work. If there was a murder and the police didn't carry out forensics there would be a massive outcry. If somebody dies at work it should be treated in the same way as a homicide elsewhere. But it isn't, due to lack of resou rces.'

And the situation is about to get worse. HSE union Prospect has expressed its outrage about plans to cut up to 350 jobs by 2008. This represents nearly 10 per cent of the HSE's 3,800-strong workforce. The jobs will go Dthrough natural wastage and voluntary redundancies but the amount of inspections and investigations will fall. The only parts of the HSE protected from the cuts are those that bring in revenue through inspection work, in the nuclear sector, for example.

This comes at a time when the average frequency of workplace inspections by HSE inspectors to workplaces has fallen from once every seven years in 2001-02 to once every 13 years in 2006, according to Hazards magazine.

The squeeze is on despite a House of Commons inquiry into the HSE two years ago, in which MPs on the work and pensions committee endorsed Prospect's view that the Government should double the amount of inspectors. This view was rejected by ministers as a populist and ineffective 'more of the same' solution.

Any workplace death is of course one too many. But the HSE deserves a large share of the credit for the improving safety performance of the construction industry, in which last year 59 workers lost their lives - a record low since figures began 13 years ago.

The organisation and the Government may argue that throwing more inspectors at the industry would not decrease accident and fatality rates. But at least it might speed up the process of finding answers for the relatives who have lost their loved ones.