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When the inspectors call...

The Health and Safety Executive has just completed a two-month crackdown on building sites across the UK. Here, inspectors speak to CN about what they found

In recent years the subject of falls from height have dominated safety headlines. This is understandable, as they traditionally account for the majority of fatalities to construction workers – this year falls from height accounted for 30 per cent of all deaths in the sector.

But trips and falls from a low height is a less talked about area that is also giving the HSE cause for concern.

In 2005-06, 4,000 major injuries such as broken bones or fractured skulls were reported to the HSE from the construction sector, half of which involved a fall from below head height or tripping over materials on walkways.

So this summer the HSE embarked on a major campaign to raise awareness of the two issues. Inspectors carried out more than 1,000 site inspections across the UK.

HSE inspector Simon Hester took part in the campaign, visiting sites in London over a three-day period in July. Mr Hester and his colleagues mainly targeted refurbishment sites in three London boroughs, many of which were relatively small. The team focused on general site tidiness and measures to prevent falls from height.

“Overall, I was disappointed with standards at the sites I inspected,” says Mr Hester. “I served seven immediate Prohibition Notices because of the risk to workers of serious personal injury and closed two sites down completely because conditions were so bad. Working at height without edge protection and the use of defective equipment were the most common problems.”

On one site, a worker was laying bricks while standing on open joists on a house extension. There was no means to prevent a fall through the joists. A Prohibition Notice was served prohibiting work at height.

Mr Hester says that he is “heartened” to encounter site managers who take safety measures seriously and are committed to the welfare of their workers. He remembers one exceptional site. “But, sadly it is all too infrequent on the smaller refurbishment sites,” he adds.

On the poor sites, says Mr Hester, his impression was that most site managers knew what should be done but had simply allowed, or even encouraged, poor practices to develop.

“It’s a complacent attitude in some cases, blatant corner-cutting in others. The really worrying aspect is that too many workers appear willing to put up with appalling conditions – welfare on some sites was truly atrocious. There are so many small refurbishment sites that the chances of all poor performers being caught out by inspectors are slim, which is why it is so important that the industry works with us to stamp out complacent attitudes.”

Nic Rigby, the HSE inspector leading the current falls and trips inspection initiative, reminds contractors that to work safely at height is a matter of following simple precautions.

He says taking time to plan the work, selecting the right equipment, and using it properly will lead to a safer working environment for all concerned.

“In terms of good order on site, many clients believe that a tidy and organised site also tends to be a more productive one, where people are able to spend their time doing what they’ve been paid to do, rather than clearing other contractors’ waste out of the way before they can start, or climbing over mountains of rubbish to get to their place of work.”

But Mr Rigby is concerned that too many contractors are failing to take notice of these simple messages.

“HSE inspectors are still coming across sites where little or no attention is being paid to the planning of work at height and the organisation of the site. The experiences of my colleagues in London are all too common across the country,” he says.

“Our message to contractors is: a site that is organised is safer and likely to be more productive. We will not hesitate in taking action against those who do not sufficiently protect the safety of workers on site.”

Stephen Williams, HSE chief inspector of construction, warns employers that they must do more to protect workers.

“It is unacceptable that so many lives are being affected and in many cases lost by falls and trips, especially when simple precautions can significantly reduce the risk,” he says. “We are determined to tackle the issue head-on. But the key to success is the support from workers and the industry itself.”

He continues, “We have to take enforcement action against those who carelessly flout safety precautions with devastating effects on workers and their families. Employers must ensure that workers are competent, have access to the right equipment, and that sensible measures are taken.”

Further information on preventing falls, slips and trips is available at www.hse.gov.uk/construction/tripsandfall