Health, safety, and saving lives: How the construction industry can reduce its fatality rate

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The number of fatalities recorded by the construction industry during 2022/2023 was up more than 50% compared to the previous period. But why is this happening, and what should the industry do about it?

The Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) 2023 report on work-related fatal injuries in Great Britain, published this July, tells a lamentably familiar story.

Of the 135 workers killed across all industries for the period up to March 2023, 45 were in the construction industry. Once again, this makes it one of the sectors with the highest number of recorded fatalities in Great Britain.

What does the HSE’s report say?

The HSE’s work-related fatal injuries statistics provide “headline numbers on deaths resulting from work-related accidents in 2022/23 that were reportable under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR).”

Comparing statistics across sectors, as well as demographic, employment status, and location, the annual report provides useful insight into how businesses and organisations in Great Britain are meeting their legal obligations to keep workers safe.

Claiming the top spot for number of fatalities is an accolade no industry would wish to receive, yet it is one the construction industry achieves most years.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the construction industry’s fatality rate for 2022/23 represents a more than 50% increase on the previous period’s 29 recorded fatalities. It is also almost double the fatality rate of agriculture, forestry and fishing, the industry with the second-highest number of fatalities, according to this year’s report.

Digging a little deeper into the report, the activities accounting for the most fatalities in 2022/23 are also those closely associated with construction. According to the report: “Falls from height, being struck by a moving vehicle and being struck by a moving, including flying or falling, object continue as the three main causes of fatal injury, between them accounting for more than half of all fatal injuries each year since at least 2001/02.”

In 2022/23, falls from height accounted for 40 fatal injuries, while 20 workers were killed after being struck by a moving vehicle. Falls from height and traffic management issues are two of the most common workplace incidents the Regulatory and Business Defence team at Gateley deal with. A fall from height includes a fall from any height above and below ground level; it is a common misconception that there is a minimum restriction.

Why has the number of fatalities in construction increased?

Although the HSE’s report states that the increase in fatalities in construction from 2021/22 to 2022/23 is not “statistically significant”, it does raise questions around why construction continues to account for the highest number of fatalities year-on-year, as well as the highest five-year average across all industries. It is also concerning that falls from height continue to be the leading cause of fatality, despite being recorded as such for more than a decade. Are there lessons that are not being learned? Or is the industry simply struggling to cope post-COVID?

No definitive answer exists to these questions, but there are a few potential issues that have perhaps complicated construction’s efforts to reduce the number of fatalities. The first, of course, is COVID. After a two-year hiatus, during which construction sites stood empty and projects had stalled, the industry suddenly boomed into a flurry of activity, with more pressure than ever on construction sites to complete projects quickly and cost-effectively.

The problem is, not all construction workers returned. According to the Construction Products Association (CPA), the construction industry lost approximately 244,000 workers post-COVID, with direct employment in construction falling by 3.6% over the same period. That was despite construction output returning to pre-COVID levels according to the CPA, meaning that sites were required to reach the same level of output with a significantly reduced workforce.

This could only exacerbate the issues faced by an industry already notorious for its tight deadlines and strict build programmes. As such, many of those employees who did return, were perhaps relying on two-year-old risk assessments and method statements (RAMS) to carry out their duties, with less time to spare for re-induction and training in health and safety on site.

Potential issues such as under-staffing, new gangs or outdated RAMS were also less likely to be picked up by the regulator due to a significant reduction in the number of unannounced on-site inspections, according to trade union Unite.

In a Freedom of Information (FOI) request published last August, Unite revealed that spot-checks by the HSE had fallen by 32% over the last decade, with Wales, the South East, and London the worst affected. According to the same FOI request, the number of enforcement notices had also decreased by 51% between 2013/14 and 2021/22.

In response, the HSE said that “the number of inspections we carried out while COVID-19 restrictions were in place was inevitably lower. The number has increased significantly in the last year, focused on sites with the highest risk to workers. Inspections are only one part of what we do to keep workers safe.”

This June, however, Unite further reported that the number of unannounced inspections had “fallen to a record low”, declining from 7,793 in 2021/22 to 7,647 in 2022/23, leading the union to declare that “the declining number of inspections will sadly increase the temptation to cut corners on safety.”

How can the construction industry reduce the number of fatalities?

Fear of an inspection is not the only motivator for best practice in health and safety. Site managers will want to see their workers go home safely every night. The issue is whether they have the resources at their disposal to properly develop an in-depth, bespoke approach to risk management on site.

While not always straightforward, health and safety in construction is still non-negotiable. RAMS are a key part of this and will inform all aspects of a site’s safe working practices, from its personal protective equipment (PPE) to its training provision. To be compliant, these need to be regularly reviewed and updated if they are to remain fit for purpose. RAMS need to be user friendly, living, workable documents and not documents that live on a shelf or intranet platform.

As well as accounting for industry best practice and legislative changes, RAMS also need to include the lessons taken from any accidents, fatalities, or near misses, as well as the skillset and demographic of a workforce. Identifying trends in previous accidents and near misses is essential to combatting common pitfalls on site and preventing recurrences. If a site is still relying on a risk assessment that it was using pre-COVID, then it is putting its workers at risk of injury, or worse.

For any site, working with health and safety specialists is one of the best ways to ensure that RAMS are updated and as effective as they can be. As well as casting another pair of eyes on a site and how it functions, they can also incorporate all relevant legislation and industry guidance into RAMS. Health and safety specialists can also play a role in delivering training and toolbox talks to ensure that everyone on site is aware of, and engages with, the risk assessment’s requirements.

Fundamentally, ownership of and accountability for health and safety at all levels of a construction business will be the catalyst that helps to reduce the number of fatalities and make the sector a safer one in which to work. While not the most welcome of news, the HSE report’s findings should provide a good incentive for decision-makers in construction to evaluate their approach to health and safety and support everyone in the business to adopt it as a priority. Contacting a specialist for guidance is a great place to start.

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