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HSE EXPLAINS THE REFURBISHMENT PROBLEM

Podcast and transcript of interview with HSE Construction Head

The latest HSE Podcast includes an interview with Mike Cross HSE Head of Construction for the NW and organiser of the recent UK wide HSE  intensive inspection campaign involving refurbishment projects.

You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript.

The interview transcript is reproduced below.

Transcript of interview with Mike Cross regarding HSE March 2010 initiative

“HSE conducted a series of unannounced visits to over two thousand construction sites in March, and one in four of those sites failed safety checks. During 2008/2009 there were fifty-three deaths in construction and over eleven thousand injuries. Mike Cross, head of construction for the North West, told us about the campaign.

In March, inspectors around the country were undertaking intensive inspections of refurbishment sites to check on standards and where necessary to enforce the law.

What is the point of this initiative?

The point is to bring home to the refurbishment sector that they must improve the standards that we see, they must take better care of their workers, and to prevent the toll of accidents that this sector is producing.

So you’re focusing on the refurbishment sector of construction?

Exactly, refurbishment is disproportionately poor by comparison with the sector as a whole.

And so just to sort of be clear about that, that’s things like redeveloping a property rather than starting from scratch basically.

Exactly, it’s working on existing buildings, it’s not down to the minor stuff such as painting and decorating, but pretty much everything else is, retiling a roof, rebuilding a damaged part of the building, adding an extension, whatever it may be, that may be commercial property, domestic property. So it’s a quite diffuse sector, quite a large sector of the industry.

So we have a real problem with refurbishment, typically smaller sites where the accident rate is much higher than on other sites, for example in house building or in new commercial projects like new hotels or new shopping centres, things like that. Smaller companies, less competent people running them, less organisational skill in managing health and safety compared to the larger contractors who have done a lot in recent years to improve their performance.

And when you were doing this, whereabouts did you go? Were you going all over the country?

Yes, this was a national initiative. We targeted specific areas, specific activities. but those were based on local decisions, based on local knowledge from the inspectors in the areas where they needed to be, what was going on etc.

And the people who work on these sites or the people who run the sites are made aware that this is happening, but obviously they’re meant to be unannounced visits, so how does that work?

Well they know where we’re going in terms of the towns or cities that we will be targeting and the dates we will be going there, but they won’t know which sites we will be visiting on a day-to-day basis. They should expect an inspector at any time, but during these particular initiatives we always put out press releases, both nationally and locally, to let people know we’re coming, because we actually want people to improve things, not to catch them out for doing things that are wrong.

So it’s kind of like a preventative measure in fact?

Exactly that, yes.

What you have found this year though is that one in four construction safety sites have failed the inspections, so that’s quite bad isn’t it? That’s quite a high figure.

We’re not undertaking a market research survey, we’re going out targeting poor performers. We’re looking at a poorly performing part of the construction sector, refurbishment, and we’re looking at particular sites where we can, where we know there might be problems. So this was not an initiative to measure performance, it was actually to go out and find where things were wrong and to put it right.

Can you give me an example of the kind of things that you’ve found this time around?

The main problem as always has been poor control of work at height, people working in unsafe places where from where they can fall and be killed or seriously injured, so for example we still find people working on domestic roofs doing retiling who haven’t got the basic precautions right, such as putting up a scaffolding.

So that has been one of the major things, but we’ve found the full range of problems, electrical safety, poor structural stability where people have been making structural alterations to buildings, poor site order, looking at housekeeping, looking at storage of materials.

So this is the third time, the third year that you’ve done this kind of blitz on construction sites, has there been a change? What’s the trend been over the years?

Well, as I said, we’re not doing these initiatives in order to take a statistical sample and find out what conditions are like, but over the last three years we have seen a slight improvement compared to the first year when we did this. When we were looking at one in three sites that were so poor inspectors had to take enforcement action, on this occasion we’re down to one in four sites where enforcement was needed.

What do you think is responsible for that change, is it because people are aware that this is what you do?

Well we hope it’s because the action that we’ve been taking, they have greater awareness of the standards that they were expecting to see, and that the messages that we’ve been putting out have been heeded.”

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