Judith Hackitt made the comments on her first site visit since being appointed to the role last October.
Speaking exclusively to Construction News, she said: “I know there are some people who think that this is all about more inspectors, and if only we had more, those figures would magically improve.
“But the real solution is to get people in the industry to manage it for themselves.”
Last year there were 77 fatal injuries to construction workers. Around one third - 23 - involved falls from height.
The general secretary of construction union Ucatt, Alan Ritchie, immediately condemned her comments. He said: “They are wrong and insulting. It is no coincidence that a reduction in inspections has led to an increase in deaths. The HSC should stop making excuses and start taking action.”
Ms Hackitt admitted the HSC was not doing enough to influence those in charge of site safety and said that the organisation needed to modernise.
She said: “Our role is to influence the duty-holders and clearly we are not doing that as well as we need to.
“I think we’ve just got to get a much more proactive way into the organisation of dealing with the pace of change that’s going on around it.”
Ms Hackitt also said the rise in fatalities for the first time since 2004 should be taken in the context of increased activity.
She added: “Clearly one has to be concerned about the statistics telling us that safety is not improving - and some would say getting worse in the construction industry.
“But I think you have to put that against the background of the amount of construction work that’s going on in the UK.”
Unions want negligent company directors to be jailed and Mr Ritchie said the HSC was not helping by opposing the idea.
Under previously announced plans, the policy-making HSC will merge with enforcement body the Health & Safety Executive later this year or in 2009.
Analysis: Self-policing is better in the long run
By David Rogers
This is one of those cases where it can be argued that both sides are right. More safety inspectors will lead to better policing of sites and a significant threat for the worst offenders to get their sites in order.
Alan Ritchie has a point about the number of inspectors going down as the number of deaths go up.
But with thousands of sites across the country, it is impossible for the HSE to visit every single one. The industry has to do much more self-policing.
Judith Hackitt’s remarks may be unpalatable to some but are aimed at the long-term. Mr Ritchie and others will argue that greater self-policing and more inspectors go hand-in-hand but ultimately the only people who can help are inside the industry.
The continuing problem is a sign that not enough have been prepared to put the effort in or, more bluntly, care enough about the people they employ.