Having revolutionised health and safety in the noughties, the industry’s fatality rates have flattened out in recent years. Binyamin Ali asks: why have improvements stalled and how does the sector take standards to the next level?
The construction sector has the highest fatality rate of any single industry.
There were 38 deaths in the year to 31 March 2018 – nine more than the sector with the second highest rate, agriculture.
While still high, the latest figure is a far cry from the decade between 1991 and 2001, when there was an average of 286 deaths in the construction industry every year.
The improvements made since can be largely traced back to the government’s intervention in 2001, when the then deputy prime minister John Prescott called the sector’s first safety summit.
With more than 700 industry representatives in attendance, ambitious targets were set (40 per cent reduction in deaths and serious injuries by 2005 and a 60 per cent drop by 2010) and the numbers finally started to fall.
By 2009/10, 45 fatalities were recorded, down from 295 in 2000/01.
In recent years, however, the number of fatalities and injuries across the sector have stayed relatively the same. Between 2013 and 2018, the industry averaged 39 fatalities a year – still the highest of any sector over the same period, with agriculture again in second with an average of 29 fatalities.
Further data shows that between 2014 to 2017, there was an average of 64,000 injuries recorded.
It is not the case that the industry’s understanding of health and safety and how it can be improved has stood still during this period. From innovative use of technology and analysing behavioural patterns to finding better ways to collect and interpret data, significant efforts have clearly been made to move this key area forward.
Yet the numbers remain stubbornly similar. Is 39 fatalities and 64,000 injuries a year as safe as the industry will ever get?
Identifying the source
Federation of Master Builders head of policy Andrew Dixon says it is “undoubtedly the case” that the majority of fatal injuries occur on smaller sites, and argues that improving standards among SMEs will be crucial.
He points to construction of the 2012 Olympic Park, on which no workers were killed, as a testament to the progress larger companies have made.
The Health and Safety Executive’s report on construction SMEs, published May 2018, supports Mr Dixon’s observation. The HSE found that “the majority of fatal incidents involve small businesses, and nearly half of all reported injuries occur in refurbishment activities”.
In compiling its report, the HSE spoke to 51 SMEs with 15 or fewer employees, 16 domestic and commercial clients, and looked at five academic SME case studies. Its main findings exposed confusion among SMEs as to who is responsible for H&S, as well as negative perceptions of its value.
“It’s the industry’s responsibility at company-level, […] representative organisations like the FMB have responsibility, key bodies like the CITB and the HSE have responsibility”
Andrew Dixon, FMB
Mr Dixon says this creates a climate where some SMEs are trying to work to high safety standards but are “continually undercut by those who will cut corners on health and safety, who will not charge VAT and will cut corners in other areas as well”.
In July 2018 the FMB published a report calling for the licensing of all construction companies, which it believes could clamp down on firms “who are shown to be incompetent or who undermine standards as a matter of course”.
The proposals have yet to receive industry-wide backing, but they do have the support of AR Demolition director of health, safety and environment Michael Henderson, who likens them to the HSE’s asbestos licensing.
“If you were to employ someone with a licence, you assume that comes with a level of competence,” Mr Henderson says. He adds that as long as it “doesn’t go down the path of a lot of other accreditations”, which have lost their clout due to abuse or poor maintenance of the system, it would be beneficial. “If it’s robust and is audited then yes, that would definitely be a step in the right direction,” he says.
The FMB is not the only trade body exploring ways to improve H&S standards and competence.
The National Access and Scaffolding Confederation introduced its SG4 guidebook for safe scaffolding in 1993. From 2012 to 2017, 49 per cent (96) of industry deaths were due to falls from height.
During that same period, however, the NASC reports that none of its 225 full contracting members (comprising 16,433 operatives) recorded a fatality. Trad Scaffolding SHEQ manager Ceasur Taylor believes this is primarily due to the NASC’s SG4 guidance.
“With the current regulatory framework, that kind of industry-led guidance is what is needed. The HSE don’t have all the answers. It is up to industry to take the lead”
Michael Henderon, AR Demolition
“It’s our working guidance so it’s actually about how we erect scaffolding,” Mr Taylor says. “The last document was SG4 15, which was out in November 2015. We started implementing the installation of guardrails in advance, so before the scaffolder gets onto the next lift, there’s already control measures in place.”
Recognising the safety benefits of this approach, Trad has gone further and made it a policy to install a double guardrail from the lift below, so “they’re almost going up onto a finished scaffold lift”, Mr Taylor adds.
AR Demolition’s Mr Henderson feels it is time the rest of the industry’s trade bodies representing specialist contractors followed suit. “The NASC guidance proves it works,” Mr Henderson says. “With the current regulatory framework, that kind of industry-led guidance is what is needed. The HSE don’t have all the answers. It is up to industry to take the lead.”
What does good guidance look like?
Skanska head of health and safety Dylan Roberts agrees on the importance of guidance, but also believes there is enough information already available. What is needed, he argues, is better signposting.
“You can look at Crossrail and the Olympics learning legacy information,” Mr Roberts says. “I don’t think there’s a need to create more information for people; I think we need to make it more accessible, so [contractors] can go onto HSE websites and find the answers they want.”
This contrasts with the views of Michelle Rice, health and safety lead at demolition contractor O’Keefe Group, who says there is plenty of H&S “rhetoric” but little by way of tools.
“There needs to be a more specific toolkit which gives people very clear pathways to enable them to know how you approach changing a culture in a business, how you approach data and inspection,” Ms Rice says. “I think there needs to be a much more user-friendly way of going about this, giving people the user’s manual.”
O’Keefe has embarked on cultural change of its own, getting rid of manager inspections and replacing them with ‘hazard walks’ and a hazard reporting app, in an effort to change the mindset of staff when it comes to H&S risks.
“A lot of companies will say they are [being proactive], but the reality is they’re not – they are reactive,” Ms Rice says. “You know this because any company still talking about near-misses is missing a trick. Near-misses are important and we have to investigate them, but what you want to get to is the hazard, the unsafe conditions that led to the near-miss.”
There are similar examples across the industry where individual companies have taken steps to innovate and readdress their approach to H&S.
GKR Scaffolding has created VR training that puts operatives in a fully realised scaffolding environment (pictured, above) where they have to perceive hazards and intervene before they escalate.
McGee meanwhile has developed more than 130 apps that feed into a central dashboard, which its drivers and operators use for daily tasks such as safety checks and waste transfer.
With health and safety innovations and best practice constantly evolving at many larger construction firms, whose responsibility is it to ensure the entire supply chain is up to speed?
Pushing the industry forward
According to the FMB’s Mr Dixon, it’s everyone’s. “It’s the industry’s responsibility at company-level, […] representative organisations like the FMB have responsibility, key bodies like the CITB and the HSE have responsibility,” Mr Dixon says.
“The positive thing is all of those organisations are working together at the moment, particularly through the HSE’s advisory committee.”
While such collaboration is encouraging, the contrasting views of Skanska’s Mr Roberts compared with those of O’Keefe’s Ms Rice and AR’s Mr Henderson suggest the industry’s different tiers remain divided on aspects of health and safety.
The HSE’s research found that some SMEs view health and safety as a money-maker for the organisation and equipment companies, while others see it as a burden that slows projects down.
With the majority of fatalities involving small construction firms, the risk is that the gulf in standards between them and the sector’s largest companies will simply continue to widen. This is reflected in how the industry’s larger firms are now turning their attentions to improving the physical and mental wellbeing of staff, in addition to onsite safety.
In the meantime, the high number of deaths on smaller sites remains a principle reason why construction accounts for more than a quarter of all workplace fatalities in the UK.
If this is not addressed, the industry risks its reputation being forever weighed down by the title of ‘Britain’s most dangerous sector’.