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  35% Cut to HSE Budget
The recent Comprehensive Spending Review saw the budget of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) cut by 35% by 2015. This has inevitably prompted fears that any reduction in the number of front line inspectors would result in an increase in the level of fatal accidents in the construction industry.

The announcement of the cuts coincided with one of the worst weeks in the industry's recent history in terms of safety, with six construction workers killed in a single week. A 23-year old worker died on 18th October when a drainage trench collapsed in Bradford. Two days later, a worker was killed on the M25 in Essex and, the following day, two more construction workers died in Suffolk when the gable wall of a barn conversion collapsed on them. On 23rd October, a 65 year old man suffered fatal injuries after being crushed by a lorry load of bricks near Maccelesfield. The sixth death occurred the same day when a construction worker was killed in Ilkeston, Derbyshire.

The General Trend Is Positive...

This spate of deaths does go against the recent trend, with HSE figures released at the end of October showing fatalities in the construction industry being at their lowest level for many years. There were 42 construction deaths in 2009-10, of which 12 were self-employed contractors. This total compared to 52 in the previous year (20 of them being self-employed) and an average of 66 deaths for each of the previous five years. The fatalities in 2009-10 represented a rate of 2.2 for every 100,000 construction workers compared to 2.5 in the previous year.

The biggest cause of deaths in the industry continues to be falls from height, while being struck by a falling or moving object, struck by a moving vehicle and collapses are also common. The hope is that the latest deaths are not a sign that the recent downward trend is about to go into reverse.

The HSE statistics did also show that injuries are on the decrease. Between April 2009 and March 2010, major injuries (which include amputations and burns) fell by 14% from 3307 to 2585. This represents a rate of 230.0 per 100,000 workers in 2009-10 compared 266.7 the previous year.

Despite the general improvement in figures, construction remains one of the most dangerous industries and has more fatalities than any other sector. This rather justifies any concerns about cuts in the HSE budget leading to a lower level of monitoring and increasing accidents as a result. The danger may become greater when the industry eventually moves out of recession and activity starts to pick up again. This may lead to new companies and inexperienced workers entering the industry, with the obvious dangers these may bring.

Possible Loosening of Regulations...

Concerns have also been voiced at possible loosening of regulations as a consequence of Lord Young's recent proposal to relax some of the more controversial health and safety provisions. Although the stated intention is to avoid some of the bizarre health and safety occurrences that the tabloids love to report, it is thought to have resulted in Conservative MP Christopher Chope tabling a number of Private Members Bills. These have rather upset building union UCATT, which is particularly worried about the Bill that seeks to reduce the need to report accidents under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). According to research by Liverpool University, only 32% of reportable injuries were actually reported under RIDDOR anyway. For self-employed workers, the figure is even worse at 12%. The union is therefore concerned that any further relaxation of the rules may lead to more dangers for construction workers.

Time will tell as to the impact of the budget cut and in a sense it will be a test for the impact of all the health and safety training and education that has taken place over the last 30yrs. The intention has never been to have inspectors constantly crawling all over every site, they exist as a spot check to ensure that health and safety best practice and legislation is being followed. Rather the intention has been to cause a culture shift in the industry so that H&S good practice becomes second nature. In theory therefore, a fall in the number of inspectors should have little impact on accident levels because H&S good practice is now an intrinsic part of the construction industry. It will be interesting to see if the construction culture and self-policing policies many companies have in place can maintain the current standards even if big brother isn't going to be watching us quite so much.

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