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Refurb and house building must tighten up their act

The number of fatalities in construction has increased sharply this year. HSE chief inspector of construction Stephen Williams examines the statistics

Despite the efforts of many in the construction industry to improve their health and safety performance, the housing sector still accounts for the largest number of fatal accidents to workers in Great Britain. Provisional figures for the most recent period 2006-07 point to 77 deaths, accounting for 38 per cent of all fatalities in the work place. This is a significant rise in the number of fatalities, compared with the previous year’s record low.

Far too often, construction demonstrates the unacceptable human cost of getting things wrong, with devastating and long-lasting effects on colleagues, family and friends. Tragically most of these deaths could have been prevented if simple and sensible precautions had been taken.

So what is causing these accidents and what do we at the Health and Safety Executive think the industry should be doing?

The rate of fatal injury to construction workers for 2006-07 is 3.7 per 100,000 workers. This represents a rise of 23 per cent compared with the final figure of three for 2005-06.

But this year’s more depressing provisional statistics are flying in the face of a 15-year downward trend in the rate of fatal injury to workers - on average a 3.9 per cent year on year decrease.

So where has it been going wrong? The most dramatic rise in fatalities has been in the housing sector – both for new build and refurbishment and repair. Fatal accidents in new build have more than doubled from 7 in 2005-06 to 16 in 2006-07.

The refurbishment and repair sector also saw fatalities rise by more than 50 per cent from 24 in 2005-06 to 39 in 2006-07. Once again, refurbishment work on domestic premises accounted for the majority of this increase with fatalities rising from 12 in 2005-06 to 22 in 2006-07, according to provisional figures.

In fact, nearly all of the increase in fatal accidents in 2006-07 over and above the figures for 2005-06 can be attributed to the domestic housing sector.

The rise in fatalities may be, at least in part, due to increased levels of activity for house builders. However, this would not appear to account for all of the increase. According to NHBC statistics, new build activity has increased by 7 per cent between 2005-06 and 2006-07 (and by 25 per cent between 2001-02 and 2006-07).

Falls from height remains the biggest cause of death with 23 (30 per cent of the total) fatal accidents to construction workers in 2006-07. The number has declined slightly from 24 (around 40 per cent of the total) in 2005-06 and there is a continuing long-term downward trend.

Fatal accidents involving being struck by moving/falling objects have increased substantially from 7 in 2005-06 (12 per cent of the total) to 16 (over 20 per cent of the total) in 2006-07. These accidents include those struck by loads which are either being lifted or fall from lifting machinery, vehicles and so on during their transfer.

Electrocutions have shown a sharp rise from three in each of the previous two years (2004-05 – 2005-06) to 10 (13 per cent of the total) in 2006-07. Of these eight occurred during domestic refurbishment and repair activities.

The HSE’s advice to those in the new-build housing sector:

Greater focus is needed on supply chain management to ensure the effective selection and monitoring of subcontractors, particularly micro businesses and SMEs;

Improvements to the design of buildings and products are required so that the impact of design on the safe erection, repair and maintenance of structures can be fully considered;

Improvements are required to construction site design, such as improved transport arrangements and the appropriate selection and positioning of plant;

Individual and management competence also needs to improve through the use of appropriate competence schemes, improved induction and access to information;

Crucially, attitudes to health and safety need to improve. Everyone working in this sector should challenge unsafe practices;

The HSE’s advice to those in domestic refurbishment/repair:

It is vital that the work is properly planned, carried out by competent people and the right equipment is selected and used;

Competent advice should always be obtained and acted on when any work that could affect the structural stability of a building is being carried out and that advice is especially needed during the transition phase;

There is a need to raise the awareness of clients and property developers to the potential health and safety risks from construction work;

Employers need to engage with their workforce as very often insights on health and safety issues and possible solutions come from employees.

HSE advice to prevent falls:

Only work at height when necessary;

If there is a risk of a fall use work equipment to minimise the distance and consequences;

Use the right equipment work equipment to prevent falls and use it safely.

HSE advice in relation to being struck by moving or falling objects:

Make sure that all equipment used for lifting is in good condition;

Ensure loads are correctly slung and loose loads are enclosed;

Do not allow people to stand under or close to loads being lifted.

HSE advice in relation to dealing with electricity:

Always check that electrical installations have been isolated before working on them;

Temporary electrical systems should be properly selected, installed, used and maintained;
Visual inspections can detect about 95 per cent of faults and damage on portable electrical equipment;

Take special precautions to prevent contact with overhead cable or underground distribution cables.

Employer size

Construction workers remain at greatest risk while working for smaller firms (those fewer than 15) or when self-employed. For last year (2006-07), the provisional proportion of fatal accidents where a self-employed individual or a small contractor was involved was 66 per cent. A large proportion of these accidents occurred during refurbishment and repair work.

Size of site

Despite a slight improvement this year, 66 per cent of fatal accidents involved construction workers on smaller sites Again, a large proportion of these accidents involved refurbishment and repair work.

Private/Public Sector

The proportion of fatal accidents that occurred in the public sector in 2006-07 is provisionally 22 per cent.

What can be done to improve matters?

Most people working in the construction industry now recognise it is the responsibility of those who create health and safety risks – the construction industry itself – to control them and prevent people being killed.

Both HSE and the industry have worked in partnership to produce the new Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

These regulations clarify and simplify duty-holder responsibilities in order to ensure that the right people are engaged at the right time, risk on site is reduced, paperwork is kept to a minimum and team working is encouraged.

While the responsibility for managing risks lies with those in the industry who create them, HSE is continuing to analyse the fatal accident statistics and will be targeting its activities at the underlying causes of fatal accidents, such as refurbishment and falls. The challenge to all in the construction industry is to refocus their efforts and take ownership of risks, show leadership and work in partnership to improve the industry’s health and safety record.

In an industry that employs up to 2.2 million people complacency or even a single fatality are just not acceptable. Analysis of the current fatal accident trends in the construction industry clearly set our priorities.

The figures outlined here have led us to target specific sectors including refurbishment that has seen a 42 per cent increase in activity, house building and commercial new build.

Our work will focus on issues such as falls from height, good order on sites and improving standards on smaller sites and smaller firms which currently account for the majority of fatal accidents.

HSE’s Construction Programme for 2007-08 and beyond will continue to develop sustainable improvement within the construction industry, focusing on improved partnership working with local authorities, a renewed emphasis on reducing major accident potential on construction sites and promoting really effective worker engagement.

* All figures given for the 2006-07 period are provisional.

Further advice on health and safety in the construction industry can be found at www.hse.gov.uk/construction or in HSG 150 Health and safety in construction (ISBN 0-7176-6182-2).