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Time to spread the safety net further

AGENDA - COMMENT

RIGHTLY, construction boasts a zero-tolerance to site fatalities. But this approach brings a drawback. While people are still killed on site, few can say that efforts to make construction a safer place to work have been a success.

This denies a valuable opportunity to highlight industry progress. The fatality figures due to be published today are expected to be the lowest on record ? half the 130 or more killed when hard hats became compulsory 15 years ago. At that time thousands of workers up and down the country still ignored the obvious safety benefits because hard hats made their heads sweat.

Now the hard hat is an icon of professional pride. This example illustrates just how difficult it is to change at titudes on site ? but it proves it can be done.

The Strategic Forum for Construction's report into industry health and safety performance published this week helps the cause by delivering a clear message that momentum for cultural change is growing and, with it, accident rates are falling.

Since deputy prime minister John Prescott held a summit calling for industry action five years ago, there has been a welter of best practice guides, toolkits and initiatives like the Major Contractors Group's Safety Charter.

In that period more than a million individuals have sat health and safety tests and now eight out of 10 workers on big sites carry a skills card of some sort.

Health and Safety Executive blitzes, targeting working at height and slips and trips have probably contributed to better figures.

In the future, moves to raise awareness among designers should start to have an impact on site, while skyrocketing fines for safety breaches will focus minds.

The message is clear: the bigger sites and companies are changing. But what of the 90 per cent of construction companies employing up to seven workers? Many harbour hard-bitten attitudes, favouring a cavalier approach to safety that openly flouts the law.

The time has come to take a much tougher line. The new building Trustmark offers the carrot and many more HSE prosecutions the stick to achieve this.

This is a difficult area to police, some say it is too unregulated and unwieldy to achieve real change. But then they said the same thing about hard hats, too.