Tom Jones says roving inspections of suspect building sites could cut the death toll due to accidents

It was good to hear at the recent construction forum convened by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which I attended as an observer, employers and employer representatives stating their commitment to health and safety.

But their comment that there is “no one single solution” was a cliché, too often used as an excuse to avoid any specific commitments.

The scale of the health and safety crisis in the construction industry was disturbingly put in context by one trade union general secretary.

He pointed out that it would have been safer to be a British soldier in Iraq where, since the war began, approximately 170 of them have been killed, than in the UK construction industry, where more than 300 workers have been killed in the same period.

The Construction Skills Certificate scheme is a positive development. One million people have been registered on it so far. It requires minimum standards and, if enforced across all sites, will be a way forward.

But enforcement needs not only resources, but regulation to end the rogue practices within the grey economy, where lip service is paid to health and safety but few questions are asked about training and qualifications.

Every year there are some 50,000 applications for the 7,000 apprenticeships on offer in the construction industry. Surely in boom times we should be seeing more apprenticeships when there is clearly a demand?

And yet all too often the successful apprentices give up their places as soon as they think they’ve acquired enough skills to make something approaching a living.

As vital and as welcome – and I got the impression as genuine – as the DWP’s initiative is, only significant funds and effective use of them will have an impact.

Giving out leaflets at builders’ yards, as one delegate suggested at the forum, is not what the trade unions and safety campaigners have in mind.

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) representative at the forum got me thinking when he said that he would never have enough resources to police sites in the “old fashioned way”. He called for more creativity in enforcing health and safety.

Roving safety reps, jointly sponsored by government, industry and unions, would certainly be a creative response and a more effective use of resources than inspections, which employers know happen so rarely – once every 12 years is the most commonly quoted statistic – that they effectively ignore them.

Roving reps are incredibly valuable in targeting small and medium sized firms – the sites where accidents most frequently happen – and helping to change the health and safety culture within them.

Employers (and insurers) with good health and safety have nothing to fear from their presence.

Roving reps, with their trade union backgrounds, know that the key issue is not exposure of the bad for the sake of it, but working with employers to raise standards.

It was disappointing that the HSE’s recent worker involvement consultation did not produce new rights for safety reps – including the right to call an immediate halt to dangerous working practices. If this new-found DWP energy is to mean anything, it must address that omission.

There may be no single solution to health and safety issues in the construction industry. But roving safety reps, with specific rights, proper resources and appropriate recognition should surely form part of the answer.

Tom Jones is director of policy and public affairs at Thompsons Solicitors