Unite, the UK’s construction union, is warning that the large increase in construction deaths could be related to a steep fall in proactive inspections and prosecutions being undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive.
Decrease in inspections
A freedom of information request by Unite has uncovered that the increase in deaths corresponds with at least a 25 per cent decline in proactive (unannounced) construction inspections.
In 2018/19 there were a total of 9286 proactive inspections compared to just 6381 in 2019/20, a decline of 31 per cent.
In March 2020, the HSE ceased making proactive inspections due to Covid-19. Notwithstanding this development, the fall in construction inspection still amounts to a massive 25 percent reduction in the number of inspections when compared to the corresponding 11 month period in the previous year.
Construction workers in danger
Unite national officer for construction Jerry Swain said: “These figures are alarming and raise serious questions about the safety of construction workers.
“Each of the fatalities was a terrible tragedy, a loved one went to work one day and never came home again.
“It is simply no coincidence that the drop in inspections has occurred at the same time that there has been a steep rise in deaths.
“We need to be honest, the constant cuts to the HSE since 2010 have had an awful impact on workers’ lives. The simple way to protect construction workers and to help stop the loss of life in our workplaces is to restore funding to the inspection and safety agency.
“It has always been the case that there are employers in construction that are prepared to cut corners on safety to boost profits – only the threat of action by the HSE keeps them in check.
“With the added problems of the Covid-19 pandemic, regular inspections by the HSE have never been more important.
“For employers who are trying to ensure that they follow the complex rules on social distancing, there is a real danger they could take their eye off the ball when it comes to other safety measures.
“With the unscrupulous employers, the rogues will consider the current crisis a good excuse to play fast and loose with all safety requirements in the unfortunately correct assumption that they are unlikely to be caught.
“Over the past decade, the HSE has been cut to the bone. The recent meagre increase in funding it has received is a drop in the ocean compared to the funding it has lost.
“If the HSE is going to keep workers safe and healthy, able to deal with the twin challenges of Covid-19 and workplace safety, then it must be given the resources by the government to do so.”
London and South West biggest reduction
The sharpest decrease in inspections was in the South West where inspections declined by 54 per cent but the most alarming decrease was in London which accounts for 30 per cent of the UK’s construction work and where inspections halved. There were also sharp declines in the West Midlands (-49 per cent), South East (-48 per cent) and Eastern England (-33 per cent).
Unite’s FOI also revealed that the total number of enforcement notices issued by the HSE concerning breaches of safety laws has declined by 30 per cent in 2019, while the number of prosecutions heard in courts for serious safety failures was down by 24 per cent.