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January 22, 2008

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Health and safety compliance in construction

Fatalities and injuries on construction sites continue to rise, despite new and updated regulations covering the industry. Rob Slater says the reason for this is many contractors are more interested in ticking boxes for the purpose of compliance rather than improving the actual safety of their workforce.

With all the new and updated guidance and regulations affecting the construction industry, it is quite puzzling to see that it has had very little effect on safety within the sector. In fact, the number of injuries and fatalities continues to rise, despite the Work at Height Regulations 2005, and the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 (CDM). Why is this?

Over the years, in my capacity as site inspector for a number of contractors and sub-contractors, I have seen first hand how things on building sites operate. Unfortunately, the tendency over the last few years has been for site managers to concentrate so hard on complying with regulations and paperwork, they sometimes overlook the most important aspects of health and safety management, i.e. assessing the real risks, and taking action to prevent workers from coming to harm.

Too many managers take what they see to be the easy way out, and enforce a policy of all workers on site wearing PPE, at all times. This blanket approach is not always the right one for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can be damaging to the reputation of health and safety and, more importantly, gives people the false impression that they are safe, simply because they are complying with their legal requirements. The more serious threats to the health and well-being of workers on site can therefore be completely overlooked.

The PPE blanket

I was recently carrying out an inspection for my client on a large contractor’s building site. In common with many large contractors, the site had blanket PPE rules. You know the sort of thing: full PPE to be worn except in the office, canteen and toilets; all the usual signs at the security gate – ‘No hat, No boots, No hi-vis, No gloves, No job!’; and everyone working on site was sent on a half-day induction course, after which they got a pretty sticker to attach to their hard hat.

Now, the more alert among you will have noted that a contractor requiring workers to affix stickers to their hard hats is in contradiction of item 76(g) of the PPE at Work 1992 guidance booklet L25. But from the contractor’s point of view, compliance has been achieved, and he need not worry about health and safety from the moment the sticker is stuck.

However, there was also a lot of plant movement on the site: tele-handlers; forklifts; diggers and dumpers; and delivery lorries were all manoeuvring about the site. Weaving in and out of these vehicles and moving plant were site workers going to and from their places of work. As each vehicle passed, the dust generated was incredible. You couldn’t breath, and you had to turn your face away.

But all the paperwork had been filled out, the forms were in the right folders, and the workers had their bright yellow hi-vis jackets on, so they were safe, right? The fact that they were in grave danger of being run over by moving plant, or suffocated by dust, was almost irrelevant – the PPE box had been ticked.

Another good example of the preoccupation with box-ticking is the rules applied on sites to men working on scaffolding. Those working on the top level, for instance, do not need to wear hard hats as there is nothing above them to cause them injury. Nor do they need to wear hi-vis jackets, as the likelihood of them being struck by a delivery truck or a telehandler is – to say the least – minimal. One of the largest housebuilders in the UK has a policy that scaffolders must wear harnesses at all times: not once they are up a certain height but almost as soon as they exit their vehicle.

On another site I was on, there was a blanket policy that ‘task appropriate’ gloves had to be worn at all times. This was on an ordinary site, where they were building a warehouse. There were no nasty chemicals or sharp edges. I was therefore intrigued as to what perceived hazards required me – a visiting inspector – to wear gloves while writing my report.

I found a similar situation on another ‘big player’ site where full PPE was to be worn at all times. On this site, only ‘podium steps’ were permitted as all stepladders had been banned – supposedly in line with the Work at Height Regulations. This policy meant that, in an area of limited space, one man had to turn his podium sideways, rendering it less than stable. As he pushed against his work to fix it, the podium tipped and fell, and he sliced his hand open as he grabbed the metal stud he was fixing, to stop him from falling.

In another area they had failed to programme the works so as to allow approximately 200 sheets of plasterboard to be raised up to the second-floor level by machine. The task was left to a few labourers, who had to carry them up three flights of stairs.

Both these incidents were unnecessary, but happened because the principal contractor was concentrating on paper compliance, and neglecting to consider the practicalities of the works that were being carried out in the real world.

I recently saw a news story about a government minister instructing some construction industry ‘leaders’ to reverse the death and injury toll. CSCS cards and mandatory gloves and goggles on all sites were said to be the way forward. Very good publicity, but to what end? Gloves, goggles and a 40-minute touch-screen test do not make for a safe working environment.

As health and safety professionals, we are all taught that PPE is ‘the last line of defence’. So how is it that the industry now seems to think it is the first – and sometimes only – line of defence? The answer lies in poor, lazy or non-existent risk assessments. Without adequately assessing the risks on a specific site, the all-encompassing PPE blanket can be shoehorned in to cover all manner of sins.

Huge numbers of managers in the industry have no real interest in the actual safety of their workforce. They keep their eyes on the real prize, i.e. the profit margin, and so long as they are seen to be making the right noises about health and safety, they can carry on as they always have. All too often these managers will have come up against the obdurate inspector or advisor who – either through a lack of experience, time, or training – fails to carry out a sensible risk assessment.

Paper mountain

The CDM Regulations were supposed to be the panacea to all the ills in the building industry. Obviously they were not, and the destruction of the rain forests to supply the paperwork they generated has done nothing to improve the industry’s safety record, either on big sites, or on local house-building extensions.

Recently a small contractor asked for my help in writing some documents so he could get onto a tender list. Like so many other small/medium-sized companies, he had no real interest in health and safety – he just needed the right paperwork so he could be seen to be compliant.

As a CDM coordinator, it is interesting to see how much actual difference the new CDM Regulations have made, how the main players interpret them, and whether small local builders take any notice. I suspect that the difference has not been huge, particularly among smaller businesses. I know of at least two local jobbing builders who have told me they cannot afford to price health and safety into their work. In a very competitive market, they tell me, most domestic clients will go for the cheapest quote they receive.

I have written numerous construction phase health and safety plans (CPHSP) for my clients. The boxes get ticked, the CPHSP is approved, and it is then put in a folder on site, and is never seen again!

The wider picture

This indifferent attitude is not restricted to the building industry. The NHS and care sectors are just as bad, if not worse. Those involved in manual-handling training (particularly those involved in people/patient handling) will know how important it is to ensure that the ‘hands on’ staff are kept up to date, and the right (often quite inexpensive) handling aids are available. But there is a feeling among many high-level managers that such training and equipment is a waste of time and money, and must only be provided when threatened with Improvement Notices by HSE or environmental health officers.

Many people, especially smaller companies, still see health and safety as a barrier to work, and see people who work in the profession as busy bodies, who are only trying to make money by stopping them working. Every day we see local builders carrying out domestic work, in the most frightening manner, and many have no intention of changing their work practices because of me. On the odd occasion I have ventured an opinion to one of these builders, I have been given fairly short shrift: “We know what we are doing, we’ve been doing this for years,” they say, as they walk along the single-scaffold board perched on top of the scaffold handrail.

If we are to take ex-HSC chair Bill Callaghan’s advice we need sensible health and safety professionals to conduct realistic risk assessments that consider the actual hazards faced. Using these, we can work alongside clients to introduce intelligent control measures. That way workers will not dismiss health and safety implementation as ‘over the top rubbish’ – or more articulate words to that effect.

Then comes the hard bit. Somehow, as a profession, we need to show managers and bosses that we are not a bunch of killjoys, and that we have a genuine interest in the well-being of the workforce. I expect many of our more mature readers will have suffered as a result of poor health and safety in the past – I know I have.

In a previous life, I was a plasterer. When the rules regarding hard hats came into force, I was told that I had to wear my hard hat while plastering a ceiling. To me, this was patently absurd. I checked with my local HSE branch, and found this was wrong. I relayed this back to the site agent and suggested that, as a finishing tradesman, the room was clearly not ready for me to plaster if there was a risk that things could fall on me in the course of carrying out, what was essentially, cosmetic work. Needless to say, the suggestion was not well-received.

Likewise, on one occasion I was told to climb to the top of a ladder carrying buckets of mortar, and to then swing out to the scaffolding platform that had been erected incorrectly. I refused to do so and got it in the neck from my boss for not getting the job done. Does this sound familiar?


Perhaps more enforcement and high-profile prosecutions are the key. But my experience would indicate otherwise. A recent flight to Dublin, on a well-known budget airline, highlighted some of the issues in question. One of my party was wheelchair-bound, and required full assistance to get on and off the plane. The Manual Handling Regulations are quite clear on this, and give plenty of guidance as to how to be compliant. The staff should have been trained to deal with such a passenger, especially in the light of the Disability Discrimination Act. So what did they do? They lifted him under the shoulders out of his chair and into the transfer chair, then again into the aircraft seat, causing him considerable pain – twice. He was also carried up and down the aircraft steps, putting him and the airline staff at considerable risk of injury.

On the return trip I took charge, and we used the manual-handling aids we had taken with us to slide him into his chair – although he still had to be carried down the stairs. On my return to the UK, I wrote to the HSE giving them chapter and verse about which regulations the airline had broken, expecting them to immediately take the company to task. A high-level prosecution in the offing, I thought. But no, I received a very nice letter thanking me for informing them, but they were too busy to worry about this, no doubt, comparatively trivial matter. They would, however, look into the matter next time they visited the company in question.

So now where do we go? The employers are only interested in paperwork compliance, the HSE won’t prosecute easy targets, and we have the bonkers-conkers brigade blaming health and safety for everything from cancelled Christmas decorations, to ‘getting in the way’ of Police business!

Is it really any wonder the average Joe sees us as nothing more than a thorn in their side? Maybe we don’t need to make more laws, like corporate manslaughter, but make directors personally liable for the fines if it is proven that they have been wilfully or deliberately negligent in not fulfilling their statutory duties. Perhaps s37 of the HSWA should be brought into play more often?

What should be done?

What does make for safe workers is creating safe working conditions. Project planners and site management can create these by: having proper traffic management; ensuring good housekeeping; making sure that the people who work on site are working as per their method statements; and by delivering regular toolbox talks to keep safe working practices in the minds of workers.

If we are to reverse this death and injury trend, we must get away from the blanket PPE mindset, and concentrate on the real issues. No one will dispute that falls from height are our main killer, but simply making everyone wear a harness does not solve the problem. Most companies now make their workforce wear fall-arrest systems, but how many have procedures in place to rescue their fallen colleagues in the event of an accident, within the critical 15 minutes? Very few will have given thought to preventing them actually falling in the first place, but this should be at the heart of effective risk management – prevention or avoidance. It is this we, as professionals, must advocate, rather than enforcing the silly rules we are so often presumed to espouse.

As a postscript to this, I see that one of the big players in construction was recenty fined a large amount following an incident in 2004. I have personally seen the quantity of paperwork that the company in question produced (as it was back then). It was almost as though they had procedures about how to read the instruction manual. In a way, this emphasises my point, as despite all their procedures and forms, one man died, and another was seriously injured. What we need is sensible task-relevant paperwork, not reams of it for the sake of compliance.

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