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HSE onus still on construction, despite government cuts

At a glance

  • HSE budget to be slashed, with inspections of lower-risk trades possibly curtailed
  • Higher-risk construction firms still likely to be subject to unannounced inspections
  • Construction sector urged to get health and safety regime in order, especially with increasing regulatory burden

Fears that continued government cuts to the health and safety budget will increase risk in the construction sector may prove unfounded.

Unions claim that the cuts which began three years ago, and which are expected to see the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) budget slashed by more than a third by 2015, are putting the safety of construction workers in the UK at risk.

But Jim Wilkes, Senior Technical Underwriter at Zurich, believes that if the HSE and local authorities do in fact reduce inspections “it will not be the end of the world, as you can’t inspect 100% of the risks 100% of the time”.

The HSE has always operated a risk-based approach to inspections and in recent years has divided trades into two categories – high and low risk – but will continue to inspect higher-risk businesses, such as the construction sector which is the most dangerous land-based work activity in Europe, according to the European Union.

“You can argue over the differentiation on high and low risk, but clearly someone doing construction work is going to be regarded as hazardous whereas someone running a corner shop probably isn’t,” said Jim.

“The HSE will say that they are going to focus their inspections on high-risk activities because that is where they have to prioritise as they can’t do everything. The government cuts to the HSE budget are inevitable because of the state of the economy.

“But this doesn’t really change anything as it is, and always has been, the duty of the individual firm to manage their risk. So, whether times are good or bad, if you manage risk then you are doing all you can to control things.

“The risk always is that people might think ‘Oh, we’re less likely to see an inspector coming round, therefore we haven’t got to be careful’. But that might not be the correct way of looking at it because there is huge supply chain in construction. When you are on site you have to fit in with other firms who you have to discuss all sorts of issues including safety on site, so there are a lot of pressures there anyway for companies to actually manage things well.”

Political football

Health and safety has become a political issue in recent years, with major reviews conducted by Lord Young in October 2010 and Löftstedt in May 2011, but statistics from the HSE suggest that there hasn’t been any significant change to health and safety figures in recent years.

Material breach

“Compared to other countries, the UK has a good record on health and safety,” said Jim. “What we will be watching for is if there is any deterioration in the future, but whether that is down to the HSE or other factors it may be very difficult to work out.”

However, it is the health and safety legislative landscape that is seeing the biggest upheaval in recent times.

New rules on corporate manslaughter, changes to some safety laws and the HSE’s controversial ‘Fee for Intervention’, where the HSE is now able to recover its administration costs when it visits a business and find a “material breach” by charging an hourly rate of £124, as well as revisions to the HSE’s Approved Codes of Practice by bringing them up to date with current thinking, are all taxing the minds of brokers and their construction clients.

“The ratcheting up of the legislative environment is creating pressure on construction activities,” said Jim.

“There is now an extra incentive to make health and safety right because if the HSE turn up and see something wrong, in their language a ‘material breach’, then it’s going to cost that company money and it’s coming off the bottom line – no-one else is going to pay for you.”

Jim added: “For construction companies, some of their big clients are always asking about convictions when trying to get on tender lists and procurement lists. But some are now going to be asking about Fee for Intervention awards as well.

“So, it is all well and good saying I’ve only been lumbered with a £750 bill but bear in mind that you may find that when you go to tender on someone’s list in the future they are going to be asking about these things and it is not going to help you.”

Risk management

It is risk management, though, that should be uppermost in the thoughts of construction firms when they are dealing with health and safety matters.

“We deal with thousands and thousands of claims and incident reports each year and there are some common threads which come through irrespective of the trade,” said Jim. “They are very basic things. We would always say to people to get hold of good advice either from the HSE website, their trade associations or from insurers and brokers.

When you are dealing with health and safety issues you should be ahead of the game. You need to know in advance what you are going to confront and plan accordingly

Jim Wilkes, Senior Technical Underwriter at Zurich

“When things go wrong and you end up with a fatality, for example, the interruption to your activities is going to be severe. You are going to face all sorts of investigations that are time consuming and will burn up money as well. You don’t want to be in that situation.”

Like construction, which is very often a pre-planned activity, health and safety should also be viewed in the same light.

“Frankly, when you are dealing with health and safety issues you should be ahead of the game,” added Jim. “You need to know in advance what you are going to confront and plan accordingly.

“Construction firms should be well-oiled machines that already have most things already covered off in relation to health and safety.”

Image © Getty

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