A quick browse of the (numerous) reports of deaths in the construction industry will nearly always contain that common phrase ‘completely avoidable’. According to one HSE Inspector, Graham Tompkins, this was the case in the death of fifty seven year old Nigel Sewell at a building site in Kneesworth in September 2011. The HSE spokesman attributed the accident to the inability to “plan the work properly, to provide appropriate instruction and to ensure there was competent supervision of the operation”. The accident occurred when a tele-handler was asked to ‘push’ a section of a mast under construction in an attempt to get it to fit where it was supposed to. The subsequent accident hardly needed a great deal of ‘competent supervision’ to predict; a one tonne section of mast is never a healthy thing to have land on you. The company, stinting on unpleasant training costs found that the subsequent £125, 000 fine and £40,000 court costs were equally unpleasant.

Unqualified and Unwilling?

One incident in Glasgow involved a single bracket that hadn’t been tightened on scaffolding; this gave way when fifty three year old Kenneth McLean inadvertently leant on it; at Glasgow Sheriff Court the investigation found the accident to be entirely avoidable and that the construction firm had ignored basic health and safety procedures being “unqualified or unwilling to take the necessary action so as to protect employees and other workers on site from accidents that were entirely preventable”. ‘Entirely preventable’, ‘completely avoidable’ and ‘unqualified or unwilling’ are all phrases that pop up in this type of inquest and investigation. So what’s the problem?

Perception and Reality

Perhaps it’s partly the tendency of some firms to view health and safety as politically correct, red-tape filled hoops which they are expected to jump through. Perhaps its unwillingness to invest in the cost of training which are, by some at least, considered ‘optional’. However, fines (which can be imposed by the HSE for poor practice even if no accident occurs) the cost of SSSTS course (for site supervisors) is a very small investment. Financial pressures are almost certainly a key factor, however. Firms and individual workers have come under increasing pressure in recent years to finish projects quickly and at distinctly low cost. The recession has seen many construction workers relying more than ever on short term contracts. The effect is that teams of workers and supervisors have differing levels of expertise and experience. Safety management or supervision can be left in the hands of the less-than-qualified and firms are reluctant to train individuals to supervise for short periods. Of course, that’s a false economy faced with huge legal bills but the “chance it” approach still seems common.

The Obvious Solutions

So what is the solution? Apart from ensuring that adequate training at all levels is provided (the really obvious solution) it’s hard to say. The “chance it” approach needs to be challenged by not only the HSE but also by individual workers and managers. All workers have an element of responsibility for their safety on site (and that of others) but supervisory roles come with an alarming set of responsibilities (alarming to the untrained) which include legal responsibility for safety. SSSTS courses can provide basic good practice grounding and should be a priority for all business owners and individual workers.

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