Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Health and Safety Executive: Improving health and safety in the construction industry (HC 627-i)

Public Accounts Committee 24 May 2004

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Evidence given by Dr Timothy Walker CB, Director General, and Mr Kevin Myers, Chief Inspector of Construction, Health and Safety Executive.

Q9 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Mr Myers, as I have said, four times as many people die in this industry as in other industries, and I just wonder whether this industry is not using you as an alibi, and whether you would not be better placed to try and take them more with you. After all, it must be good business practice to have a safe construction site. Is that a fair criticism, do you think?

Mr Myers: I do not entirely understand the question. I do not think they use us as an alibi.

Q10 Chairman: They are not doing enough to protect their own workers.


Q27 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I want to pursue the points made by Jon Trickett. When I read the report, I have to say that I was absolutely staggered by that statistic. As a layman, I would assume that the vast majority of accidents took place on the site because of carelessness, but to find that 60% of fatal accidents take place because of design faults, it seems to me that you are not doing your job very well, are you?

Dr Walker: Design is one example, and planning is also very important.

Q28 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Seeing this, the problem is not at the work site itself; the problem is on the design board.

Dr Walker: It is very important to understand that it is the people who create the risk who have the responsibility for managing it. Our job is to produce guidance and -----

Q29 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But they are not following that guidance, are they? You are producing the guidance and they are not following it. If 60% of accidents are taking place, they are taking no notice of you, so what is the point of you being there in the first place?

Dr Walker: They are taking limited notice. That is one reason, both on the designing and also the planning stage - planning is very important. I am dealing with the planning supervisors, and how sites are planned. Sometimes that is done on site and sometimes off site, but those things are actually crucial.

Q30 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What can you do to ensure that the design and the planning stage is done correctly so that you reduce that 60%?

Dr Walker: It is a combination of things. The first is making sure people understand their duties. We are trying to improve the education of architects by getting more about on health and safety and risk management on undergraduate courses and into professional courses. In the larger projects - and the numbers are given in the report - we have worked with the planners and designers at a very early stage to improve that. For example the work we have done on Terminal 5 is set out in the report.

Q31 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is all well and good, but if you look at paragraph 2.11 on page 19, it says: "The Health and Safety Executive concluded that around one-third of designers demonstrated little or no understanding of their responsibility, and their knowledge of the relevant legislation was often limited. Many lacked knowledge of their duties, and some did not even accept that they had any duties in the first place." It sounded to me when I read this that it was a bit like the Ancient Egyptians building the pyramids: sod it how many lives are lost, as long as we get the thing built!

Dr Walker: I gave you the example of the work we have done in the North-East. A year later, when we went back and surveyed the designers - not just the ones we talked to but all the designers in the North-East, we found that the level of knowledge had gone up, and the level of those who had training on their responsibilities had gone up by a factor of five. That is an example of where in one area of the UK action by HSE had had a significant result.

Q32 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): When a big project or a little project is designed, do you look at that design and point out that there are problems in the design? How early in the project do you get involved?

Dr Walker: Perhaps Mr Myers would like to talk about the Heathrow Terminal 5.

Mr Myers: I can do, but to answer the more general question first, our job is to ensure that that is done; it is not to second-guess the design decision. It is to make sure that it is built in. We try to get in early to ensure that the client chooses competent designs.

Q33 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What happens if they do not comply with what you are saying?

Mr Myers: If they do not comply and it causes a significant breach of the law which we can collect evidence on, we can take enforcement -----

Q34 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): For example, we have just seen on the television over the weekend the airport terminal collapsing in Paris. I do not know how many years that thing has been there, but presumably the design fault has been in that for years and years and years!

Mr Myers: It was a similar situation here with the collapse of a footbridge at Ramsgate Harbour port many years ago. We investigated that and, if my memory serves me correct, we prosecuted the designers involved in that case. We could do so as well if the Paris incident occurred in this country.

Q35 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is the point I am making; that incident should not occur because it should have been seen and pointed out at the design stage. It should never get to a stage where it is built and people are then killed because of it.

Dr Walker: We do not know what the cause of that accident was, and we cannot speculate whether that was design or something else. It could have been maintenance or a wide variety of things. We are never going to be able to inspect every last project before it happens, and neither should we. The duty-holders themselves have responsibilities for making sure they run the project properly. When we have a very large project that we know about, we usually work with them at the early design stage and in many cases we can identify improvements. If they were to fail to implement improvements that we believe were necessary to comply with the law, then we could take appropriate enforcement action. We could require them to do it.

Q36 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Twenty years ago, when I was finance chairman of the council, we came up with a policy which said that we were not necessarily going to take the cheapest policy. We said that in any tender for a contract, first they had to show us that the company abided by health and safety regulations; and, second, they had to recognise trade unions. By doing this, very often we did not accept the cheapest tender. Why is that not done today? I personally must have been very enlightened twenty years ago to do this.

Dr Walker: I am sure that is still correct.

Q37 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But it seems to me that this does not happen now. It seems that even the Government does not do that; they seem to take the cheapest contract regardless of any other conditions that may be apparent.

Dr Walker: You are right that not enough clients are as enlightened as they should be. What is needed to be done - and this is general Treasury guidance - is to go for value for money, not for the cheapest on the project. We have been working with the Office of Government Commerce to produce guidance for government in how to incorporate criteria about health and safety in the letting of construction contracts.

Q38 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Is there no legislation which makes it compulsory for contractors to have health and safety regulations written into it?

Dr Walker: Often, contracts will specify that all kinds of law should be complied with, but it is not just health and safety law to be complied with, it is people managing health and safety in a positive way, and often clients in both the public and private sectors want evidence on how companies manage health and safety - their management systems and their record - as one of the elements they take into account in letting the contract. I very much welcome that. It is also why we are encouraging all companies, including construction companies, to include in their annual reports information about their health and safety record.

Q39 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It seems to me that it is a very good way of getting rid of the cowboys.

Dr Walker: Using health and safety as a criteria and following the guidance of the Office of Government Commerce is a very good way of getting better value for money out of construction contracts.

Q40 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Explain to me why government projects, which have huge budgets - I walk past one each day, the building of the new Home Office - they are costing hundreds of millions of pounds; so why is it not stated in the contract that health and safety regulations have to be abided by, and stringent rules put in, so that fatalities are not possible?

Dr Walker: You are right, that the Government can improve its performance as a client of the construction industry. It is not just the contract; it is also the tendering process and what you put in the tender, and what you require people to do. It is how you take into account past health and safety performance and health and safety management capacity, as part of deciding whom to give the contract to in the first place. It may even be the designer of the project from the start, which again is before the tendering stage.

Q41 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): How much does a fatality cost on site? Apart from the traumatic experience for the family, what does it cost in terms of compensation and things like that?

Dr Walker: That would depend on the facts of the case, but the cost of occupational health and safety on the failures overall in the UK is something like £2.5 billion. That is not just in construction; that is in all industry.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is four times greater in the construction industry, so it is three-quarters.

Q42 Chairman: It is very high - 71 a year.

Dr Walker: Yes. It may be a little less here, but 71 in 2002/2003.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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