Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 52 of Session 2003-04, dated 14 December 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

“The UK construction industry has a better health and safety record than other EU countries. But the industry’s record is still worse than in any other UK sector, and accounts for one in three fatalities from workplace accidents. It is simply unacceptable that 70 construction workers are killed each year and thousands more suffer major injuries.

The HSE needs to do more. It should trial a mixture of approaches to its blitz visits, make better assessment of the impact it is having on trends in accident rates, and encourage clients and contractors alike to focus on long-term health and safety implications of building design.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 52nd Report of Session 2003-04, which examined the extent to which the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had made a difference to health and safety in the construction industry; whether its performance measurement was robust; and whether it had adopted a strategic approach which took account of the underlying factors which affect the industry’s safety record. The HSE has statutory responsibility for enforcing health and safety law. HSE has a workforce of around 4,000 staff, and spent £111 million in 2002-03 helping all sectors of industry improve compliance with the law, with a further £26 million on awareness days, issuing guidance, and providing advice.

In 2002-03, 71 construction workers were fatally injured and a further 4,098 suffered a major injury at work, with a further 70 construction workers dying in 2003-04. Musculoskeletal disorders are prevalent, and maintenance and construction workers account for many of the 3,500 deaths a year resulting from exposure to asbestos.

The Committee found that the HSE should trial a mixture of approaches to its programme of blitzes to establish whether carrying out visits unannounced would reveal more serious breaches of Health and Safety regulations than publicised visits. The HSE should also follow up blitzes with unannounced visits at a later date to confirm that improvements sought to health and safety on site have been sustained.

To better assess its impact, the HSE should consider an annual omnibus survey to determine whether attitudes of employers and employees towards key health and safety issues are changing over time. The HSE should also commission research to establish whether there is a link between accident rates, structural changes in the industry and changes in the volume and type of work being undertaken by the construction industry.

The HSE should measure and report on the impact of its work against the sector’s activities which carry the greatest risks; for example, falls from height and workplace transport on site.

The HSE should act to encourage clients, architects, designers and others to put more emphasis on long-term health and safety implications when designing buildings, for example by emphasising the business benefits to be derived such as lower maintenance costs over the longer term. It should also consider disclosing the health and safety records of high profile buildings. And HSE should encourage government clients to prioritise health and safety requirements.

To increase the deterrent effect of prosecution, the HSE should consider asking the Home Secretary to seek a direction to the newly established Sentencing Advisory Panel Council to frame a sentencing guideline on health and safety offences. Breaches of health and safety regulations are serious criminal offences, and legislation provides for penalties, including unlimited fines in some circumstances. Courts have, however, tended not to impose maximum penalties available.

The HSE should determine whether there is a link between the tax status of vulnerable workers and the incidence of fatalities and major injuries in the construction industry.

The HSE should work with the Home Office and other departments to access intelligence on illegal workers and the activity of gang masters, and alert employers and contractors to the dangers of engaging with such people.

The HSE should collect hard evidence for its view that targeting inspection activities at larger companies influences others along the supply chain. Influencing those employed by smaller firms, for example, as sub-contractors on large contracts, may in practice require more direct targeting of smaller operators.

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