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May 15, 2012

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SHE 12 – “Extreme pressures” on the construction industry caused by the recession

Neil Tomlinson, director of the Access Industry Forum (AIF), introduced a lively and important debate on the implications of the Lofstedt Review for working at height.

The aims of the discussion were to find out the current position and what the likely impact of the Review will be from a cross-section of specialist speakers, from relevant industry associations, to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

Alison Fryatt, from the DWP’s health and safety team, kicked off the debate by saying the Lofstedt Review is just one part of the Government’s reform package for health and safety, which Minister Chris Grayling believes has become too embroiled in red tape, causing duty-holders and the general public confusion about what the law actually requires.

She said the DWP was hoping to deliver over half the requirements of Lofstedt by the end of 2014, having ensured that work at height complies by April 2013, and was hoping to publish a progress report this summer.

When asked by chairperson Tomlinson whether things were improving, Julia Evans, ceo of the National Federation of Builders, said that the issue of health and safety, and particularly work at height, was top priority for all her diverse membership. The construction industry in general has very high standards, but, she said: “the work at height issue is a key cause of catastrophic injuries”.

Evans pointed out that the Lofstedt Review comes at a time of other changes in the industry, particularly the recession. Health and safety can be used as a “blunt instrument”, particularly for the Federation’s smaller members. The recession is leading to efficiencies being made by scaling down the equipment used and using cheaper options just to stay in the game.

“Price is driving the choice of safety equipment,” she reported. “The key to resolving this is the correct education and training in context, understanding the environment that people are working in.”

Mike Long, from the National Federation of Roofing Contractors, agreed with Evans, saying that: “the extreme pressures on companies, small and large, to get the work done more cheaply, is leading to a vicious circle where contractors end up with no money and are forced into doing things they shouldn’t”.

Mike Pearson from the Painting and Decorating Association said that although there had been a lot of improvements in working at height in the last seven years since the Regulations came in, he had to reiterate what the other panellists had said on the pressures on contractors to make choices.

“Contractors are bringing to bear a lot of nonsense on painters and decorators, such as that ladders can not be used, and we’ve got to deal with this nonsense,” he said. “We need to be told before Friday that we need scaffolding up by Monday,” he remarked. “There needs to be more time to plan work and make the right choices.”

Has the last seven years been good for the International Powered Access Federation? asked Tomlinson of Chris Wraith, its representative on the panel. “From a commercial point of view, the WAH Regulations have been excellent for the access industry,” he observed. But have the Regulations reduced accidents? “They have concentrated people’s minds and raised awareness on working at a lower level – below two metres – an area that received less attention before,” he said.

The panel was asked what they thought about Loftstedt’s recommendation that self-employed people in low-risk occupations should be exempt from any health and safety regulations. The DWP’s Alison Fryatt confirmed that the “rather vague” recommendation does not apply to builders or any trades that risk harm to other people.

So what about working at height going forward? Julia Evans said that it was not a question of legislation, but about getting the industry to step up and improve its health and safety. “We know what to do, but we need practice. This takes education and training,” she iterated. Mike Long agreed. “The WAH Regulations need a slight MOT, but the information is there and if we get people to use it and use the correct equipment, I can’t see a problem.”

Mike Pearson made a plea for simplification and summarisation of the legislation in “bite-size chunks”, since it is currently in “solicitor-speak”. He also made a plea for more, and better, equipment to be freely available for hire. For Chris Wreath, the most important issue was clear and correct communication.

Finally, Tomlinson asked the panel what the trade associations are doing to get the compliance message across to SMEs and micro-businesses, a sector that is traditionally hard to reach. Julia Evans suggested they go to trade fairs, use their contacts, use social networking sites such as Twitter and try advertising.

“Don’t hold back on this if you want your message delivered,” she advised. Mike Pearson added that the hardest people to reach were employers in the domestic market, who do not put any pressure on workers apart from getting the job done on time and to budget.

The chair summed up that the key issues at stake were terminology, communication and utiising the trade associations to help get the safe working at height message out there.

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