The changing construction health & safety landscape

16 December 2014

Increased construction activity, an influx of new workers and a changing legal landscape could leave construction companies facing more workplace accidents and liability claims. 

The UK construction sector faces potentially declining safety standards and more accidents and compensation claims. The sector remains high-risk despite significant reductions in the number and rate of injury over the last 20 years. It employs about 5 per cent of employees in Britain yet accounts for 27 per cent of fatal employee injuries, and 10 per cent of reported major injuries, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).  

Several younger foreign workers have recently perished on high-profile sites in London, and the HSE’s chief inspector of construction has warned that there is a risk that injuries and fatalities will increase as workloads rise.  

This July the HSE visited 560 construction sites in its latest inspection crackdown on the construction sector. It handed out Fee for Intervention fines in 35 per cent of instances, and 72 of these sites were given either enforcement or improvement notices while 13 had prohibition notices issued – forcing immediate stoppage of work due to safety breaches. 

In the latest crackdown 239 health-related contraventions were also issued, which suggests that the HSE is focusing particularly on respiratory risks from dusts and exposure to other hazardous substances such as cement and lead paint. 

New workers, new risks  

So why the increased scrutiny? In the bust to boom cycle of construction activity, construction companies have faced challenges to increase their workforce to match increased operations. The sector needs to recruit 36,400 people each year until 2018, according to the Construction Industry Training Board. 

Yet many construction companies suffer from ageing workforces, and some previously laid off workers in the down cycle have moved into new sectors. Consequently, construction companies are becoming more reliant on younger, less experienced workers, and workers from abroad. 

Many construction companies also have poor levels of serious accident reporting, as noted by Baroness Rita Donaghy in her 2010 report One Death is too Many, which examined the underlying causes of fatal construction accidents. 

This problem can be compounded by changing employment practices. Workers may fear being laid off if they report accidents, because of the sector’s high proportion of selfemployed workers and the growth of zerohours contracts, coupled with the ongoing ripples of blacklisting. 

Damages claims for personal injury and death are unsurprisingly coming under an increasing spotlight. Last year’s Ministry of Justice reforms and the new claims portal, through which new employers’ liability and public liability claims up to £25,000 in value are transacted, intend to reduce the legal costs of pursuing a claim, which could lead to construction companies facing more liability claims. 

Companies should therefore ensure that suitable health, safety and risk management initiatives are implemented and also increase their focus on claims defensibility. Increased accidents and claims will inevitably arise from ineffective recruitment and training processes, so employers should ensure that these key areas are reviewed and are fit for purpose.   

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For further information, please contact Stuart Winter, Head of Regional Risk Practice on +44 (0)20 7528 4756