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Health and safety still a distant dream

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I read with interest Simon Danischewsky's letter (aj 23.7.98) but lest it be inferred that I am insensitive, or worse, dismissive of site safety issues, I should set the record straight - few architects can match my experience in this field! As a student, I spent 12 months researching site conditions. The project was funded by Sir Robert McAlpine, who had two objectives: a philanthropic desire to improve site standards and a wish to anticipate the requirements of the 1976 Health and Safety at Work Act.

Working for David Price and his brother Cedric, who had persuaded Alistair McAlpine to make a site available for study and subsequent testing of proposals, I witnessed the progress of construction from major excavations and temporary shoring, through to topping out, cladding, services installations and so forth.

The site agent was Ved Saberwhal; a brilliant man - unflappable, strict, charming, demanding, polite, patient, and always immaculately dressed. He was an outstanding manager able to inspire tremendous pace and high levels of quality in his teams. All aspects of activity and resources, from issues such as site-office location to materials storage, were investigated. (We even tested padded trousers to protect workers against haemorrhoids caused when sitting on cold concrete floors!)

We consulted a nutritionist over diet, and special menus were prepared relative to season and trade activity. Yet despite this inspired and well- publicised work, the subsequent Health and Safety at Work Act, and the introduction of cdm in 1994, little has changed regarding site safety.

Yes, there are more jobs for more administrators who have more forms to fill in, procedures to follow, and courses to attend. But still we daily witness the basic neglect of even the simplest safety issues by men using pneumatic drills without ear protection and, worst of all, without gloves. That incurable disease 'white finger', caused by vibration damage to arteries, continues unabated, as does permanent damage to hearing. And this often on work funded by local authorities and statutory service companies!

The real issue is whether, despite the worthy intentions of cdm and all the allegedly useful site planning and box ticking, any material benefits have accrued from legislation. The answer seems to be no. The achievements of construction companies are of course considerable, but construction remains one of the most cut-throat of all industries. The processes of ruthless competitive tendering against increasingly inadequate design information, and of ever-shorter lead-in times and impossibly tight construction programmes, produce circumstances ripe for incident and accident from the outset of excavation work to the completion of snagging.

This situation is exacerbated because training remains a low priority in an industry that is now founded almost entirely on 'piece-work' and subcontracting. And if we expand the issue of health to include even wider matters such as stress-related disease suffered by construction managers, and the myriad of small subcontractors racked by debt problems accrued through a hopeless and punitive payments system, the situation is even bleaker.

We will clearly have to look further than a few clipboard-carrying parasites to achieve improvements in safety, let alone any real improvement in conditions. Indeed, despite cdm being introduced in 1994, site deaths increased by 16 per cent over the subsequent two years! As Cedric asked: 'Who's kidding who about safety?'

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