'Visa' scheme to cut deaths

Steve Hook

The building industry aims to reduce its accident rate by enforcing safety training for all staff, reports Steve Hook

WORKERS will have to show safety "visas" before they are allowed on to construction sites as employers try to reduce the industry's accidental death toll.

More than 100 people a year die on building sites and the mobile nature of the industry's workforce means too many people slip through the training net, with employers reluctant to train short-term casual workers.

The cards are issued to people who have achieved a recognised level of health and safety training as well as vocational skills.

A group of all the major construction companies in Britain, including Wimpey, Laing, McAlpine and Costain, intends to make the card compulsory for workers on all their sites by 2003.

Last year, 114 fatal construction site accidents were investigated by the Health and Safety Executive.

Nine in 10 plant operators are trained to industry standards, including instruction in health and safety. But only 40 per cent of people in the remaining trades from carpentry to scaffolding have reached this level of competence.

"The difficulty is that, when there is a fatality, there is usually a combination of factors," said Trevor Allan, a senior inspector at the HSE. "But training is often one of them. Not just training itself, but what we refer to as competence, which is about training, culture and experience, all of which can affect someone's ability to do the job safely."

The HSE has a close working relationship with the Construction Industry Training Board, the national training organisation which is anxious to clean up the building industry's image. Construction accounts for a third of British workplace deaths.

Research on behalf of the construction branch of the HSE suggests that the accident rate may be partly due to the culture of building-site bravado.

"Competence is degraded by a tradition of unsafe practice, bravado and complacency, by lack of familiarity with the work environment and by poor or inappropriate training," says the research, due to be published in a few weeks.

The standard basic qualification route for most building site workers, those who are not plant operators, is the Construction Skills Certification Scheme, which is owned by CSCS Ltd, a company jointly owned by a group of employer bodies and unions, the largest being UCATT.

The CSCS qualification, includes a minimum of NVQ level 2 in vocational skills as well as a health and safety element. Those who lack the health and safety qualification can take tests at driving centres around the country, using a multiple-choice computer test based on a sample of 600 possible questions.

"This may mean that people have to commit themselves to one employer in order to get qualified," said Bill Jenkins, company secretary of CSCS. "But it will be worthwhile if we reduce the number of fatalities. Also, I think, as far as the rest of the training is concerned, clients have the right to know that construction is being carried out to a good standard of quality."

The ban on untrained workers on large construction sites is seen as the most practical way of tackling the problem in an industry which relies heavily on workers who move around the country.

The difficulties in setting learning targets and carrying out accurate skills surveys among this workforce mean that compulsory changes are considered necessary.

New regulations: www.tesfefocus.co.uk

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Steve Hook

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