Compared To 20-Year-Olds 35-Year-Olds Are Less Likely To: 35% Cut to HSE Budget

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35% Cut to HSE Budget

The most recent Comprehensive Spending Review revealed that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) budget was cut by 35% by 2015. This inevitably raised concerns that any reduction in the number of front-line inspectors would lead to an increase in fatal accidents in the construction industry.

The announcement of the layoffs coincided with one of the worst weeks for safety in the industry’s recent history, with six construction workers killed. A 23-year-old worker died when a drain collapsed in Bradford on October 18. Two days later, a worker was killed on the M25 motorway in Essex, and two more construction workers were killed when a gable wall collapsed on a converted barn in Suffolk the next day. A 65-year-old man was fatally injured after being crushed by a truckload of bricks near Maccelesfield on October 23. The sixth death occurred on the same day, a construction worker was killed in Ilkeston, Derbyshire.

The trend is positive…

The spate of deaths does buck recent trends, with HSE figures released at the end of October showing construction deaths at their lowest level in years. Of the 42 construction fatalities in 2009-10, 12 were self-employed contractors. That total was up from 52 the year before, 20 of whom were self-employed, and an annual average of 66 deaths over the previous five years. The 2009-10 death toll was 2.2 per 100,000 construction workers, compared with 2.5 the previous year.

Falling from heights continues to be the industry’s biggest cause of death, while being struck by falling or moving objects, struck by moving vehicles and collapses are also common. Hopefully the recent death toll does not signal that the recent downward trend is about to reverse.

HSE statistics also do show that injuries are decreasing. Between April 2009 and March 2010, major injuries (including amputations and burns) fell 14 percent from 3307 to 2585. This represents 230.0 injuries per 100,000 workers in 2009-10, compared to 266.7 the previous year.

Despite the general improvement in numbers, construction remains one of the most dangerous industries, with more deaths than any other. This justifies concerns that HSE budget cuts have resulted in lower levels of monitoring and increased accidents. The danger could become even greater when the industry finally emerges from recession and activity begins to pick up again. This can lead to the entry of new companies and inexperienced workers into the industry, which can present obvious dangers.

Potential deregulation…

There are also concerns that regulation could be loosened, with Lord Young recently proposing to ease some of the more controversial health and safety rules. While the statement was intended to avoid some of the bizarre health and safety incidents that the tabloids like to report, it is thought to have led Conservative MP Christopher Chopp to introduce some private MPs’ bills. These are quite troubling for construction union UCATT, which is particularly concerned about bills aimed at reducing the need to report accidents under the Injury, Illness and Dangerous Occurrence Reporting Regulations (RIDDOR). According to research by the University of Liverpool, only 32% of reportable injuries are actually reported under RIDDOR anyway. For the self-employed, the figure was even worse at 12%. As a result, unions are concerned that any further relaxation of the rules could put construction workers at more risk.

Time will tell the impact of budget cuts, and in a sense this will be a test of the impact of all the health and safety training and education that has been put in place for the past 30 years. The intent was never to have inspectors constantly crawling around at each site, they exist as spot checks to ensure health and safety best practices and regulations are being followed. Rather, the aim is to cause a cultural shift in the industry, making H&S good practice second nature. In theory, therefore, a reduction in the number of inspectors should have little effect on accident levels, as H&S good practice is now an inherent part of the construction industry. It will be interesting to see if the building culture and self-regulatory policies of many companies can maintain current standards, even if Big Brother doesn’t pay that much attention to us.

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