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Leagues apart on prosecution and enforcement


Despite considerable efforts, construction still has much to do on safety. In this groundbreaking survey Alasdair Reisner examines the HSE's databases to discover which firms had the most fines or enforcement action against them in the past five years

CORPORATE social responsibility. These are three words to run a shiver down the spine of many a company director. More and more shareholders are looking not just for profits, but to ensure ethical, environmentally friendly and safe behaviour.

While ethical and environmental performance is often hard to quantify, many contractors have twigged to the fact that a few well-placed statistics and a mission statement about safety can bathe their company in a responsible light ? a caring, sharing f irm that looks after its employees' welfare.

Yet these companies are working in what is described by the Health & Safety Executive as Britain's most dangerous industry. An industry where last year 71 workers failed to return home, representing a third of those killed across all industries in that period. How can everyone be perform ing so well if more than 8,000 workers suffered a ser ious injury on site last year?

So Construction News decided to find out whether those firms trumpeting their safety statistics are really doing as well as they claim.

More than 50,000 records from HSE databases of prosecutions and enforcement action were combed to find out how well contractors in the Construction News Top 100 had fared during the last five years the HSE held records for. This search looked for results not only for the companies themselves, but their subsidiaries and joint ventures.

The results must, of course, be approached with caution. Statistics do not always tell the whole story.

But while admittedly they are a blunt tool, they can be a useful benchmark for comparison across the sector.

The first element of the survey looked at where enforcement actions had been taken. This included both prohibition notices (given by an inspector to halt an activity that presents a serious risk of injury on a site) and improvement notices (used to tell a contractor to improve site conditions to comply with health and safety legislation).

Each company's turnover was then divided by the combined number of prohibition and improvement notices to give a 'safety score'. A low score means a firm has had a large number of enforcement actions for a company of its size.

In th is category Scottish outfit Robertson Group polled the lowest figure. The group racked up 19 enforcement notices in the five-year survey period, more than all but nine of the other firms on the list, despite its relatively low turnover of £141 million.

The firm seems to have a particular problem with an issue that kills more construction workers than any other: unsafe work ing at height. More than half the notices issued to the firm were for problems of work at height or scaffolding issues.

Of the firms close to the top of the table most are medium-sized or regional contractors, suggesting the safety message is getting through at some of the household names of UK construction. Major firms like Amec and Balfour Beatty are well down the list, with only HBG UK/Nuttall and Interserve among the UK's top 10 largest contractors in the top half of the table.

The second part of the survey looked at firms prosecuted for health and safety violations. £4,731,000 in fines were imposed on contractors on the list during the survey period and almost half of firms were found guilty of at least one breach. The average fine for contractors successfully prosecuted was £96,000.

Unsurprisingly those firms that topped this list had all been affected by site fatalities. In November 2004 Jarvis was hit by a £200,000 fine following the death of eight-year-old Heather Foster, electrocuted on tracks near her home in Liverpool. The firm admitted it had failed to maintain a boundary fence for which it was responsible. This followed a £275,000 fine earlier that year after a coal train derailed on a section of track the firm had not reinstated after works.

Another firm active in the rail sector, Balfour Beatty, sits just behind Jarvis in the fines league.

Its penalty total of £463,000 includes punishment for three fatalities. In 1997 four-year-old Bobby Wood was killed when she crawled onto live rails at Strood station in Kent after a gate was left open. In 2000 agency worker Michael Mungovan was killed when he was struck by a train while working on a contract for Balfour Beatty at Vauxhall station in London. In both these cases the firm was fined £150,000. Balfour Beatty Construction was fined £120,000 last November for its role in the death of Stephen Hayward, who was working on Balfour Beatty's A5 Nesscliffe bypass project in 2002 when he was hit by a lorry.

The su rvey shows that health and safety violat ions are still all too common, even among some of the largest players. As a result Construction News intends to carry out an annual audit of enforcement action and fines for the top 100 contractors. Hopefully the results in 2007 will show the vital improvements needed to revitalise the woeful safety record of the industry.