Along with soft-touch “regulation” in the financial sector, New Labour has championed self-policing in other sectors of the economy – most lethally, in construction.
With the government accelerating public works projects and becoming a big fish as private construction shrinks, there’s an opportunity to regulate the industry.
End confusion and chaos in construction
LAST April, Sonny Holland, a 20-year-old “apprentice” scaffolder, fell to his death while at work. His death was a chilling example of everything wrong with the construction industry. Despite being described as an apprentice, Sonny was not being formally trained. He was officially working as self-employed – a ridiculous situation for a so-called apprentice. After he was killed, the firm he worked for went into liquidation in an attempt to avoid its liabilities and then established a “new” company.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Sonny’s death is not that it was unusual, but all too common. In the past two years there have been just over 150 construction deaths – an average of six a month. It says much about the media’s view of the expendable nature of construction workers that the vast majority of these deaths barely received a mention. If there is any reduction in the next annual fatality figures, it will be due to a combination of luck and less available work due to the economic downturn.
My union, UCATT, fears the recession could actually make construction sites more dangerous in the medium term. Much of the industry has a macho culture that only pays lip service to health and safety. When times are tight, safety is first to be cut. With thousands of construction workers losing their jobs, those still employed are even less likely to refuse to perform a dangerous task, for fear of being given their cards and told there are plenty of others who will work without complaint.
Despite these problems, there is a very real opportunity for major improvements in health and safety in general and the construction industry in particular. Two major initiatives were announced shortly before Christmas.
They are the Health and Safety Executive’s launch of a consultation on a new strategy and the Government’s announcement of an inquiry into the high number of construction deaths, chaired by Rita Donaghy, the former head of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.
In recent years , the HSE has suffered a bad press. The recurring refrain from the right-wing media – of health and safety legislation “gone mad” – has distorted the real story about what is wrong with the organisation responsible for keeping us safe at work.
Since 2002, the HSE has suffered year-on-year real term cuts in resources. This has led to a reduction in the number of frontline inspectors and fewer inspections. In the construction industry, there has been a 42 per cent decline in the issuing of enforcement notices and a 30 per cent reduction in prohibition notices.
The reduction in safety notices is not because sites are safer. When the HSE scrapes together the resources for a targeted blitz of construction sites, at least 75 per cent of those visited are found to be breaking health and safety laws. Many are so unsafe they are shut down immediately. Yet so slim are the HSE’s resources that these blitzes, which cover a tiny fraction of the industry, are becoming more infrequent and visiting a smaller number of sites.
Even more disturbing are the low level of prosecutions following a construction worker’s death. Convictions rates have fallen to just 30 per cent. This is put into perspective by the HSE’s admission that management failure is a factor in more than 70 per cent of fatalities.
Construction is the most dangerous industry in Britain, but a similar pattern of a reduction in safety enforcement can be seen in other sectors, particularly agriculture.
The HSE is under the misapprehension that safety will not improve through an increase in inspectors, inspections and prosecutions.
Instead it is the responsibility of industries to regulate themselves. This dangerous nonsense would be funny if it was not so serious.
In a highly casualised industry such as construction, the only way to keep the many rogue employers in line is by the constant threat of prosecution. Sending them glossy leaflets asking them to be more safety aware is a waste of time and money.
There has been a growing awareness of the failure of the self-regulation throughout the labour movement. Last September, the TUC Congress unanimously backed a UCATT motion opposing self-regulation at the HSE and mandating all TUC-nominated representatives to campaign against it.
That the HSE is now consulting on a new strategy gives the labour movement an opportunity to have a say. This is vital, as the HSE document produced to launch the consultation is so bland and non-specific. It is essential that as many people as possible attend the road shows planned for this month and contact the HSE calling for a greater number of inspectors, more inspections and greater enforcement. Further details of how to get involved can be found at http://www.hse.gov.uk/strategy
If we do not give clear direction to the HSE, then business – obsessed by so-called red tape and “flexibility” – will use try to dilute safety at work still further.
The Government’s inquiry into construction was created because of UCATT’s lobbying, to which ministers finally conceded as part of last year’s Warwick agreement between Labour and the unions.
The inquiry must get to grips with the dark underbelly of the construction industry. If it has the courage, it will take some far-reaching decisions to change the way the industry operates. It must examine the highly casualised nature of construction. People are able to walk onto a site and start work immediately with no checks on whether they know what they are doing and whether they are a danger to themselves or others. Such laxness can have tragic consequences. In January 2007, Zbigniew Swirzynski was killed on his first day on a site in central Liverpool when the jib of a tower crane fell off. A lack of paperwork meant it was several weeks before his family in Poland was informed.
Casualisation in construction is made worse by bogus self-employment. Rather than employ workers directly, companies opt to use bogus self-employment via the Government’s Construction Industry Scheme, a unique stand-alone tax scheme. More than 400,000 workers are officially classified as self-employed while having all the characteristics of an employee.
They are placed at greater danger because they lack employment rights and can be fired at a moment’s notice. Sites using bogus self-employment are almost exclusively unorganised and do not have safety representatives. A well-organised site with independent safety representatives can reduce accidents by 30 per cent.
Is there another industry where the major players do not employ their own workforce? It is the norm in construction. The big household names barely employ a single construction worker.
Work is performed by sub-contractors, who then further sub-contract the work. On a large site, it is perfectly possible to have a dozen companies all working at the same time. Chaos and confusion reign. Even if intentions are good, safety messages are lost and unnecessary accidents occur.
Fragmentation in the industry has accelerated in recent years due to the rise of employment agencies and gangmasters. Workers of widely varying abilities are placed on sites without competency checks being made. UCATT has campaigned for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to be extended to the construction industry in order to improve health and safety. Sadly, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform rejected our proposals.
The inquiry should examine the arguments in favour of introducing directors’ duties. This would require companies to nominate a director responsible for health and safety. If someone died as a result of flagrant breaches of health and safety, there would be the possibility of a director going to jail. The first time a director was filmed being led from their office in handcuffs, the vast majority of the industry would swiftly get their act in order.
This year could see the beginning of a huge improvement in protection at work and a subsequent reduction in deaths. We need those writing the new HSE strategy and conducting the construction safety inquiry to have the courage to challenge vested interests, ask difficult questions and reach brave conclusions.
We cannot afford another false dawn or a report that is a damp squib. Workers’ safety is simply too important.