THE CONSTRUCTION industry is often seen as bottom of the class when it comes to health and safety, and for that reason top of the list for the Health and Safety Commission's attention.
Construction News has managed to get hold of a draft report being circulated to interested parties that suggests life in the hot seat is about to get hotter.
Sensible Health and Safety at Work: The Regulatory Methods Used in Great Britain details the strategies enforcement agencies will use to ensure a decline in levels of workplace injury and ill health. The report, now having the final touches put to it before publication, names only two priority sectors for concentrated scrutiny ? public services and construction. It also speaks of the need to focus on areas with 'significant levels of risk, or indeed of actual harm'.
'Construction is perceived as a poorly performing industry when it comes to health and safety, ' says Ron Reid, a partner at Shoosmith's solicitors, who specialises in health and safety law. 'The Government has made public commitments to reduce accident statistics to certain levels by 2010, and we're not halfway there yet. They need to change those numbers.' And it seems the HSC is prepared to get tough to achieve results, particularly with serious and persistent offenders. The report reads: 'We will seek greater impact for enforcement that we carry out through the targeting and heavier punishment of rogue businesses and through the greater publicity that we will seek for those convicted.' It continues a paragraph later: 'We will hit hard any rogue businesses we come across, and press for severe penalties for blatant and deliberate offence.' Mr Reid is surprised by the wording of the document. He says: 'It's very strong. It's usually more tempered. I haven't seen something like this from the HSC for a long time.' He conf irms that publicity is increasingly being used as an addit ional weapon against breaches.
'Ten years ago, if you got prosecuted it would be reported in the local paper. Now the HSE has a slick media machine and my clients face a host of journalists outside the court. You have to think of accidents in terms of cr isis management, ' he says.
Evidence that health and safety breaches are being more heavily punished is already easy to find. Last year saw Balfour Beatty hit by a £10 million fine ? the largest ever imposed on a construction company in the UK ? for its part in the Hatfield rail disaster.
Gas giant Transco was penalised to the tune of £15 million when a pipeline exploded in Scotland.
Mr Reid expects that fines will continue to rise. He says: 'The Court of Appeal has said it believes fines should be set at levels which hurt shareholders. This is a serious issue.' It may not only be companies which are targeted.
Mr Reid claims to have seen a major rise in individual prosecutions over the past couple of years.
'The HSE is def initely ask ing for more personal interviews with managers when investigating accidents, and if they are guilty they will prosecute them as well as the company, ' he says.
This causes additional complications, as the same lawyer cannot represent both the company and the individual. Mr Reid says few companies have considered who will pay for the additional counsel.
'Some companies will have legal expense cover for individuals, but this is often only at board level.
Middle management can be targeted too, ' he says.
The document also identifies topics that will receive express consideration. The old favourites are all evident ? slips and trips, falls, workplace transport, musculo-skeletal disorders and stress.
There are three newer but familiar areas ? noise, hand-arm vibration and disease reduction. But, completely out of leftfield, come 'absence management, return to work and rehabilitation'.
'This is an area most companies would think is the preserve of human resources, ' says Mr Reid.
'But HSE inspectors will be checking company policies in this area and whether they are effective.
No one can afford to ignore these factors.' A familiar chorus from both the HSE and its critics cites its lack of resources. To combat this the body is hoping to use larger organisations to pressure supply chains into compliance, the report suggests. It intends to 'engage in partnership with carefully chosen organisations ? as being capable of making major contributions to improved health and safety (either directly, or by the influence they wield over others)'.
'They have no capacity to go after smaller firms, ' says Mr Reid. 'By giving contractors increasing responsibilities for their subbies they can make the employer become the inspector.' He believes companies will be held increasingly to account for their subcontractors' safety standards, which, in conjunction with the current revision of the Construction, Design and Management Regulations, placing more responsibility on the client, will push responsibility for health and safety further up the supply chain. This will have a knock-on effect when it comes to winning work.
'A good price will not be sufficient to ensure a company is engaged, ' Mr Reid says.
But how will companies measure the safety records of the firms they employ? Currently information can be accessed on the HSE's enforcement database, but only for prosecutions and notices served.
'That's a blunt tool, ' says Mr Reid. 'It's only the negative things, and it could be down to one incident.' The HSE has used an internal rating system for many years to allow inspectors to share their views of firms. The report suggests there is the potential to make this rating public. It reads: 'We will develop a system for openly rating the performance of organisations.' An appendix to the report summarises the responses from a 2004 consultation exercise, which show a formal recognition of good performance has passionate advocates and opponents. But whenever and however the HSE gives greater transparency to its views on f irms, the fact that safety records will play an even greater role in winning work is inevitable.
n Ron Reid will be a speaker at the Plant 2006 conference on March 2 at the Nat ional Motorcycle Museum in Birm ingham. He will talk about reducing risks on projects. For more information visit www. plant2006. co. uk.