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HSE to probe deaths for Govt inquiry

Auditors may have to trawl through 10 years of Health and Safety Executive reports and closely examine around 50 fatality investigations as part of the probe into construction deaths ordered by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Contractors who have had a fatal site accident could also be visited by independent assessors looking to review company reports on incidents.

Although the Government has yet to confirm details about what form the inquiry will take, industry representatives have raised concerns that it could become just an “internal paper shuffling audit”.

The HSE is understood to have put its proposal for the investigation to the DWP after work and pensions secretary James Purnell requested an inquiry in a meeting at 10 Downing Street three months ago.

The Government’s safety regulator is understood to have told the DWP it will review all of its reports over the past 10 years – including its ‘black spot’ publications – to ensure it has gained all the intelligence it can.

Concerns have been raised in the HSE about a potential loss of expertise at the organisation, with many inspectors having retired or approaching retirement age.

The regulator has offered to undertake a review of 50 fatal accidents to ensure the right lessons have been learnt. This would include interviewing inspectors who investigated the deaths.

The HSE is believed to have proposed commissioning an independently researched report containing information from other sources such as construction companies and insurers.

But the DWP has refused to reveal any plans for the inquiry. A spokeswoman said: “The secretary of state will make an announcement once the detail has been completed.”

Industry sources say there has been high-level discussion in the DWP about what the investigation will involve. It is understood Mr Purnell may demand the inquiry be more externally driven than proposed.

Construction union Ucatt has urged the Government to make it a mainly independent review. General secretary Alan Ritchie said: “The HSE are intent on scuppering a proper inquiry into why workers are dying on construction sites. Rather than be forced to answer tough questions about their performance they want to hold an internal paper-shuffling audit.”

Julia Brandreth, spokeswoman for the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council and Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group, said trade bodies were waiting anxiously for details of the investigation.

She said: “It all sounds like a good idea, but we need to know the specifics. We need to see exactly what it involves and get assurances that results will be reacted on in a concrete way.”

An HSE spokeswoman said: “This is an ongoing workstream. HSE chair Judith Hackitt submitted proposals for the review of construction fatalities to James Purnell in August. As this is a matter of great importance, the secretary of state is giving HSE’s proposals significant consideration.”

Analysis: Real change on deaths will require real action

By Rhiannon Hoyle

What do we need to be doing to drive down fatalities? Reports have been produced, guidance set, summits held, but we see little impact. Not the kind of impact really needed, anyway. And many have again asked just what is this inquiry going to do?

What makes it different from any of the other initiatives of recent years? John Prescott’s 2001 Construction Summit was meant to be a crucial turning point for the industry. But 72 workers were killed last year, a small increase on the 70 fatalities
recorded in 2002-03.

So we wait for word from the Department for Work and Pensions about how hard it is going to push this investigation. If it is going to do it right – do it with the hope of making any difference at all – then it must be driven independently and hard questions do need to be asked. This is the chance for the HSE and the industry to stop talking and start doing.

We need some real action.