Death on a building site

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Yesterday, a building worker was killed when he fell 20 feet while working on a site in Surrey. The day before, the crushed bodies of four construction workers were pulled from beneath the rubble of a three-storey office block that collapsed near Heathrow. These men are the latest statistics to be added to the death list of Britain's most dangerous industry.

The slow, cumulative total of fatalities and injuries in the construction and building industry does not usually provide enough drama or headline attention to generate the immediate appearance of a sober government minister laden with something-will-be-done promises of inquiry and justice. Yet over the past seven years 650 building workers have lost their lives, with 82 killed last year alone. As someone in the industry put it: "We suffer a Piper Alpha every year, and few take notice."

The ratio of deaths and injuries in the construction industry per 100,000 workers has remained constant. Last year workers suffered nearly 4,000 major accidents, ranging from loss of limbs to paraplegia; 10,000 minor accidents; occupational hazards, such as asbestos dust, continue to cause problems. Those working in the industry have no illusions: construction is inherently dangerous. But the Health and Safety Executive, which polices and monitors all workplaces, has said that 75 per cent of all construction accidents were essentially preventable.

But it is difficult to apportion blame in an industrial culture that sub-contracts most work and where 95 per cent of firms have fewer than 10 employees. With cut-throat competition for contracts, employers are inevitably tempted to ignore, or at least reduce, safety. But this is a false and unjust economy.

The Government seems to think so as well. This year new regulations for the construction industry were issued. The problem is that the number of HSE inspectors has also been reduced. For Britain's 100,000 sites (everything from tiling a roof to building a bridge) there are now just 120 inspectors.

Tougher penalties are needed where negligence has been proved. The 410 convictions in the industry last year resulted in an average penalty of just pounds 3,412. The Trades Union Congress has lobbied for custodial sentences in extreme cases of negligence - and there appears merit in its argument.

The rules do not need to be toughened or tightened, but we need the political will to enforce them. The path from accident to HSE inquiry, from coroner to prosecution, is clear. However, there is often a hesitation among cautious civil servants, wary of using the full force of law. So more safety regulations in response to injuries or deaths will prove pointless in the end.

Rules without fierce referees willing to blow the whistle on offenders or order off the reckless are of little use in a dangerous game.