HSE to target "poor working conditions" at UK construction sites with unannounced inspections

Out-Law News | 27 Jun 2014 | 4:48 pm | 2 min. read

Risks to the health of workers on building sites caused by poor working conditions, such as the risks of exposure to noise or vibration, are being targeted by the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as part of a new campaign.

Inspectors from the HSE will look at respiratory risks from silica and other dusts, exposure to hazardous substances including cement and lead paint, manual handling, noise and vibration during unannounced visits at sites across the country. The campaign will highlight the fact that a worker is at least 100 times more likely to die from a disease caused or made worse by their work than from an accident at work, according to the HSE.

Health and safety experts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, welcomed the new campaign, which they said was "not a huge surprise".

"There is a general view amongst many health and safety professionals that the regulatory emphasis tends to be on enforcing 'safety' at sites rather than on 'health' concerns, with asbestos the notable exception," said Jonathan Cowlan. "The HSE Construction Workplan for 2014/15 (4-page / 32KB PDF) has asbestos risk and occupational health as a priority area."

"Companies would be well advised to take this inspection drive seriously," said Laura Cameron. "The HSE has a great track record for issuing enforcement notices on the back of similar campaigns in the recent past. Add into that mix the fact that the HSE can now charge for their time in ensuring compliance if it finds a material breach of health and safety law at £124 per hour, and it's clear to see that this could have significant implications for businesses."

The unannounced inspections began on 23 June and will run for two weeks. Inspectors will be checking that every site that they visit has acceptable standards in place for dust control and control of exposure to other hazardous substances, noise control and use of vibrating tools. They will also consider whether sites have acceptable standards in place to control the risks of manual handling and repetitive tasks, such as those involving twisting or awkward posture.

According to HSE figures, 39 construction workers were killed on sites in 2012/13. However, more than 500 deaths a year are caused by exposure to silica dust alone, it said.

"The construction sector has made good progress in reducing the number of people killed and injured by its activities," said the HSE's chief construction inspector, Heather Bryant. "We need to tackle where workers are unnecessarily being exposed to serious health risks, such as silica dust, which can have fatal or debilitating consequences."

"This initiative provides a chance to engage with firms to help them understand what they need to do, so they can put in place the practical measures needed to keep people safe. However, let me be clear – poor risk management and a lack of awareness of responsibilities is unacceptable. Companies who deliberately cut corners can expect to feel the full weight of the law," she said.

Health and safety expert Christopher Hopkins of Pinsent Masons said that firms needed to find trusted advisers to help them comply with their legal responsibilities.

"The HSE is right, in particular, to target the risks to the health of workers caused by noise and vibration, as this is an issue that some firms often struggle with," he said.

"The key for firms is to find a competent, trusted health surveillance provider which can help them to manage the specific risks arising from their sites, to decide how to tackle these and to comply with the HSE's reporting requirements," he said.