Last reviewed 26 November 2014

Nigel Bryson summarises the Health and Safety Executive’s recent inspections on construction sites, and considers the challenges of ensuring that the revised CDM Regulations help improve safety.

In July this year, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published details of a targeted inspection of health issues within 560 construction sites visited.

Enforcement notices were issued at 85 sites and, at 13, work was stopped because conditions were “so poor”. In total, 13 prohibition notices and 107 improvement notices were served. Overall, 239 health-related notices of contravention were also served at 201 of the sites. (Notices of contravention arise when the HSE identifies a “material breach” of health and safety legislation.)

In commenting upon these failures, the then Chief Inspector of Construction, Heather Bryant, stated that the figures were unacceptable and added:

“So, to encourage the industry to treat health issues in the same way as safety, HSE’s inspectors will consolidate the efforts of this initiative throughout the rest of the year by looking at the prevention and control of health risks in construction, alongside their continued assessment of the management of safety risks issues.”

The scale of the task was underpinned by a larger targeted inspection initiative conducted between 22 September and 17 October 2014 on 1748 “repair and refurbishment sites”. Here the HSE found that 40% of the sites were “failing to properly protect workers”.

The failure continues

Before the HSE introduced its Fees for Intervention scheme, intensive inspections in construction used to highlight the enforcement notices served during the initiative. In the last 20 years this generally moved from about 28% of sites visited being served notices, to the current 20%. However, now that the HSE can claim back its costs where an employer is in “material breach” of health and safety law, this provides an additional measure of failure in maintaining health and safety standards.

So what is the HSE trying to achieve with these targeted inspections? It has stated that the main aims of the initiative are to:

  • achieve an improvement in industry standards, in particular at small sites

  • increase awareness of the HSE’s expectations of the industry

  • demonstrate that the HSE will use the enforcement tools at its disposal to prevent immediate risk and bring about sustained improvements.

If this type of initiative is viewed over several years, however, the main finding is that a significant number of construction sites are so poor that enforcement action for serious health and safety failings occurs on about one in five sites.

So what do inspectors look for? The main hazards that HSE inspectors will consider are:

  • whether risks to health from exposure to dust such as silica are being adequately controlled

  • whether workers are aware of where they may find asbestos, and what to do if they find it

  • if other health risks, such as manual handling, and exposure to noise and vibration and, hazardous substances, are being properly managed

  • whether jobs that involve working at height have been identified and properly planned to ensure that appropriate precautions, such as proper support of structures, are in place

  • if equipment is correctly installed or assembled, inspected and maintained and used properly

  • if sites are well organised to avoid trips and falls, and walkways and stairs are free from obstructions

  • if welfare facilities are adequate.

The results of the latest targeted inspections, which started in September, can be summarised as follows.

  • Poor standards or dangerous practices were found at 40% of sites visited (691 of 1748).

  • On 360 (1 in 5) sites, practices were so poor that enforcement action was needed:

    • 313 prohibition notices were issued

    • 235 improvement notices were issued.

  • The most common issues identified related to work at height and falls (42%), failure to control dust (12%), insufficient welfare (12%) and asbestos (10%).

  • In total, 35% of notices were served for health issues (asbestos, dust, noise, vibration, welfare and manual handling).

It must be of concern to the HSE that after all the campaign work and information in the public domain, asbestos controls were deficient at a significant number of sites. It is also remarkable that in the 21st century welfare facilities on site were so poor that the HSE had to take action. Safety remains a dominant issue.

Notably, 42% of the HSE action was related to falls from height. Not only is the risk fairly obvious, it has been recognised as a problem in construction for a considerable time. In 2002/03, 46% of the fatal injuries to construction workers were related to falls from height. While there has been a reduction in the annual fatalities overall since then, clearly work at height remains a major problem.

The targeted inspection results reveal many breaches are not minor transgressions resulting from just a few visits: a significant 1748 sites were inspected.

CDM Regulations — a new drive?

Currently the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 (CDM) are being revised and there has been controversy about some of the proposed changes. For example, the HSE had proposed withdrawing the associated Approved Code of Practice (ACOP) altogether. Such was the negative feedback to this during the consultation period, however, that the HSE agreed to produce a revised, simpler ACOP, supported by a new raft of industry guidance.

The HSE stated right from the start of the revision that it wanted to make the new regulations more applicable to smaller projects. The targeted inspection shows the scale of the problem that the HSE will need to address. Of course the HSE emphasises that it cannot operate alone. It has worked with various stakeholders to help promote good health and safety standards. In the revision of the CDM Regulations, it worked with various industry representatives to produce new guidance. The HSE anticipates that, by encouraging the construction sector to produce targeted and more simplified sector specific guidance, compliance with the regulations will be improved.

So the challenge the HSE has set itself is to:

  • revise and simplify the main construction-specific regulations and have them in place by April 2015

  • reduce the main ACOP associated with the regulations to cover key issues

  • increase the amount of sector-specific guidance on key topics

  • maintain the funding for the Working Well Together construction campaign initiative

  • continue to target asbestos controls with the relaunch of the Hidden Killer campaign

  • encourage the construction sector to take health issues as seriously as safety issues.

This is — in essence — continuing with the same approach of the past. It is also not clear from the discussions on the CDM regulations revision how the changes will improve compliance on small construction sites.

As the improvement in the economic performance of the UK translates into greater construction activity, there is concern that not enough construction workers are available with the right skills. In addition, it has been seen in the past that when construction activity rapidly increases, injuries to workers often increase as well.

Some in the industry feel somewhat fatigued by the continual attention that poor health and safety standards in the sector receive. They argue that the majority of sites are well run. The problem is that over a long period of time — and after many targeted inspections — a significant number of sites are not only found to have poor standards but around one in five of these sites are so bad they require enforcement notices to improve standards.

The enactment of the new CDM Regulations in 2015 will bring attention back onto health and safety in the sector. The targeted inspections have shown what the key enforcement issues are. The HSE is unlikely to be sympathetic to any site manager who fails to maintain the appropriate health and safety standards on site, whatever the size.