Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group (BCDAG)

  Following the collapse of a crane in Thessaly Road, Battersea, London on 26 September 2006 where two people lost their lives, families of the deceased, residents and supporters formed the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group (BCDAG) in October 2006. The group work to campaign for improved crane safety and for an end to deaths as a result of crane collapses.

THE BACKGROUND

  On 26 September 2006, at a Barratts construction site on Thessaly Road in Battersea, a 50 metre Falcon Crane Hire Ltd tower crane collapsed onto a block of residential flats killing the crane driver, Jonathan Cloke, 37, from Guildford and local man Michael Alexa, 23, who was working on his car in the street outside his mother's home.

  There was a good deal of understandable anger in the community after the fatalities. Michael Alexa's family were distraught that his body was left at the scene for five days before it could be moved safely. Residents, particularly children, were traumatised by the events. There was also anger because the Barratts site used to house a well-loved local school, which was closed by Wandsworth Council in the face of robust local opposition. The council then sold off the land to Barratts for a development of mainly luxury homes, which were way out of the financial reach of local residents.

  Battersea and Wandsworth TUC, who have a strong track record of campaigning on health and safety and in local communities, set up a public meeting in October 2006 to give families of the bereaved and residents the opportunity to come together and raise their concerns. Out of this meeting the Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group was formed and agreed to hold a further public meeting to hold Wandsworth Council, Barratts and Falcon to account.

  The BCDAG welcomes the opportunity to make a written submission to the inquiry of the Select Committee. Our submission will focus on the following:

    —    the lack of a national, publicly accessible register of cranes;

    —    the inadequate resources available to the HSE to ensure that proactive inspection and enforcement of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, Regulations, and the Code of Practice on Crane Safety are carried out in a context of a building industry boom, and the 2012 Olympics (in a context of funding cuts to the HSE);

    —    the increase in deaths in the construction industry and the recent spate of crane collapses and near misses;

    —    the public safety issues associated with poor safety performance in the construction industry; and

    —    the failure of the Strategic Forum for Construction Tower Crane Group to support initiatives to increase enforcement and a register of cranes.

  The BCDAG believes strongly that a well-funded HSE, committed to proactive inspection and enforcement of safety standards in the construction industry, combined with severe penalties for employers who kill through negligence, is the key to a twin-track approach that also combines an educative and consultative role for employees, trade unions and employers to lift standards in the industry. The lack of will to make this happen comes at the cost of more dead workers and residents. The question is how many more people have to be killed before the trend for industry self-regulation runs its course.

1.   National Register of Cranes/Plant

  1.1  It is beyond the remit of the BCDAG to discuss the safety issues associated with plant generally but our comments relating to cranes can and should be taken further to include other types of plant such as mobile plant, pressure vessels, lifts, machinery and equipment and the like. It is astounding that a modern, advanced industrialised nation such as the UK does not have a national register of cranes held by the HSE.

  1.2  In Australia, a comparable jurisdiction both in terms of economic fundamentals as well as the evolution of safety legislation and technical standards, there is a national register for plant. All tower and mobile cranes are captured by this register. In the New South Wales jurisdiction, the register is called up under the NSW OHS Regulation 2001 making it a legal requirement for all cranes to be registered before they may be used in any workplace. The registration obligation falls on the person in control and may include the owner, lessee, importer, and/or employer. The items to be registered are:

    —    Table Items of plant required to be registered Boilers categorised as being of hazard level A, B or C according to the criteria in AS 4343-1999.

    —    Pressure vessels categorised as being of hazard level A, B or C according to the criteria in AS 4343-1999 except the following:

    (a)  LP gas fuel vessels for automotive use covered by AS/NZS 3509:1996,

    (b)  serially produced pressure vessels covered by AS 2971-1987,

    (c)  pressure vessels that do not require periodic internal inspection in accordance with the criteria in Table 4.1 in AS/NZS 3788:1996.

    —    Lifts (including escalators and moving walkways) as defined in AS 1735 Parts 1 to 17 (as listed in Schedule 1).

    —    Amusement devices (other than coin operated amusement devices) that are, or may be, operated otherwise than by manual power.

    —    Tower cranes.

    —    Building maintenance units.

    —    Concrete placing units (truck mounted with boom).

    —    Mobile cranes with a safe working load greater than 10 tonnes.

  1.3  This has a number of advantages. The first is that the ownership/control of a crane is clear from the outset for the purposes of inspection, enforcement and prosecution. Auditing of registered plant by age, design type, origin, or other factors, including accidents and near misses, can be done by the regulatory agency allowing targeted intervention and enforcement. The second is that it avoids a costly waste of resources. In the UK currently in some investigations and prosecutions by the HSE, identifying the ownership of the crane is a key element of the investigation. The third is that trade unions, employee safety reps, contractors, and other stakeholders can identify on each construction site if all plant has a registration label affixed and the date of the last inspection. The fourth is that concerned residents and community organisations can report concerns regarding usage of cranes in a locality and be able to receive relevant information from the regulatory agency. From a community safety point of view, the BCDAG feel it is imperative for local residents to be able to access quickly relevant information on cranes working in their localities.

  1.4  The BCDAG finds it hard to understand why motor vehicles have to be registered on a national database, with proof of insurance and tax paid before use, and yet 50 metre tower cranes working next door to schools and houses may have come in from another country the week before and been assembled without any process to satisfy the HSE that compliance with safety standards has been carried out. Finding out after a death or serious injury is clearly too late. The public safety implications are no different to someone driving an unregistered car dangerously past a school.

2.   Resources and enforcement

  2.1  The evidence is clear that the ability of the HSE to carry out proactive inspection and enforcement in the construction industry in order to ensure compliance by legal duty holders to prevent accidents and deaths is being progressively scaled back due to lack of adequate funding. Up to 500 jobs have been lost at the HSE since 2002. The DWP are proposing funding cuts for the period of 2008-09—2010-11 in the order of 5% per year, cumulative to 15-16% over three years.

  2.2  The HSE is not meeting current targets and the expectation must be that further funding cuts will only reduce the ability of the HSE to carry out proactive inspections and enforcement activity. The current tightening of funding, with 10% cuts to funding over the past two years, and the drain on resources created by undertaking prosecutions has seen inspections of workplaces fall by up to 25% in the past few years. Prosecutions and notices issued have fallen.

  2.3  The (uncorrected Hansard) evidence by the HSE on 28 November 2007 stating that the number of inspectors in construction has stayed the same is disingenuous. This is because there has been a construction boom during the recent period and so per workplace there are fewer inspectors available, and in order to maintain the same absolute numbers of inspectors in construction, the BCDAG understands that inspectors have had to be taken from other industry sectors resulting in fewer inspectors being available for proactive work elsewhere. The BCDAG are also astounded that the HSE have suggested that they have enough resources to carry out their work.

  2.4  The BCDAG understands that there are 15 inspectors available in London for the construction industry. There are thousands of building sites and hundreds of large commercial projects at any one time in London so we believe that with such a small number of inspectors available, and with much of their time spent on investigation and prosecution after a death or serious injury, the resources to actually carry out proactive enforcement in London in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics is miniscule. This implies that the policy of the HSE is in fact not to prioritise proactive enforcement of safety which means there will be more deaths resulting from crane collapses and other causes in the months and years ahead. The contrast with the proactive enforcement and safety blitz of the industry in the lead up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics could not be starker.

  2.5  The lack of resources to carry out enforcement activity is again borne out in the (uncorrected Hansard) evidence by the HSE on 28 November 2007 where after detailed questioning the HSE admit that because prosecutions take up so much of inspectors' time, and due to the funding drain caused by not fully recovering costs of successful prosecutions, the priority has become one of consultation and setting targets and changing the culture of the industry. The problem with this philosophy is that it is clear, and well known to all who work in the industry, that the simple economics of the construction industry mean that profits are the key motivator. Cutting corners, undercutting for contracts, the use of sub-contracting arrangements, casualised and migrant labour are the economic factors that underpin the industry. This is why regulation by statute, government agencies and strong trade unions has always been necessary around the world in this industry to lift safety standards.

  2.6  There is no economic incentive for employers and duty holders to comply with safety requirements in an environment of falling inspections and enforcement activity. This is clear. There is a financial cost for a successful prosecution but a large duty holder can absorb it, a small one can go into liquidation, and the profits made from unsafe practices more than exceed any penalties levied. Relying on some `moral' change in culture for duty holders is beyond wishful thinking, and the evidence referred to below regarding the recent incidence of deaths in the industry belies such wishful thinking. It is workers, residents and their families who pay the price for this wishful thinking.

  2.7  The wide-spread precarity for workers in the industry, the use of `blacklists' and anti-union activities mitigate against both worker involvement in consultation over safety and the ability of workers to refuse to work in an unsafe manner or on unsafe work-sites. Without a regime of proactive inspection, backed up by a funding regime that will allow the HSE to carry out this role, without a change to the precarity for workers in the industry and genuine involvement of workers and trade unions in safety on site there will not be long-lasting improvements to safety standards and a reduction in deaths and injuries.

  2.8  There must be an enforcement blitz of the construction industry, and in particular tower cranes as a matter of urgency. This could set a standard for other high-risk industries and by way of example encourage employers to ensure compliance ahead of a visit by an inspector. By nature of their sheer size, tower cranes pose a significant risk to the public in the event of collapse. The BCDAG believe that it is mainly good luck that has stopped a crane collapse killing large numbers of workers and members of the public.

3.   Record levels of deaths in construction

  3.1  The ongoing spate of crane fatalities, injuries and near misses plays its part in a climbing construction death toll, as well as devastating the lives of families affected by the carnage. The BCDAG believes that increased and effective funding of the HSE and a genuine enforcement approach to preventing deaths in the industry will save lives and improve safety in the industry.

  3.2  In 2006-07, a five year-high of 77 construction deaths was reached. So far in 2007-08, there have been 28 deaths in just over four months, which if this trend continues into the winter months implies that a new record will be set for construction deaths this year. The ongoing spate of crane fatalities, injuries and near misses plays it part in this climbing death toll.

  3.3  The recent spate of tower crane collapses in London and across the UK indicate that there are serious problems associated with the supply, commissioning, use and maintenance of tower cranes.

  3.4  Following the crane collapse at Battersea 26 September 2006 mentioned in the background to this memorandum, there was another collapse involving Falcon cranes on Tuesday 16 January 2007, this time in Liverpool. Miraculously, the crane driver escaped with minor injuries but a worker on the site was killed when the crane fell on him. The Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group wrote to the HSE on 18 January 2007 to demand that prohibition notices were put on sites everywhere in the country where Falcon cranes were operating, until full independent safety checks had been carried out.

  3.5  On 19 January the HSE issued a prohibition notice on all Falcon Tower Cranes in the country pending independent inspections. This action is unprecedented. As a result over 140 Falcon cranes were subjected to thorough examination and testing. The inspection determined that 10% of Falcon cranes were found to contain `Category A' faults. An initial analysis led to the serving of another enforcement notice, this time an improvement notice, requiring Falcon to thoroughly review their maintenance arrangements, and ensure that these arrangements met minimum standards specified in the notice schedule. This enforcement action saved lives and the BCDAG believes should not be limited to cases where a community campaign is in place to argue for such action. Such enforcement action should be routine where there is suspicion of non-compliance with safety standards.

4.   Public safety

  4.1  The use of tower cranes and the operation of construction work-sites constitute a clear public safety concern. The BCDAG believes that the lack of funding for proactive enforcement of safety places the lives of the public at risk. This was sadly borne out by our own experience in the Battersea crane collapse. BCDAG find it strange that in other areas of public policy, whether binge drinking, drug law policy and road safety preventative enforcement to ensure compliance with legislation is routine. The example of speed cameras is a case in point. The police do not just wait until there is a fatality involving death caused by speed to then prosecute. The police enforce speed limits for the purpose of reducing the number of fatalities and to change the behaviour and culture of road users. The excuses used to not do this in industry regarding imposing a regulatory burden on business belie a larger priority, which is one of de-regulation for business, and placing the pursuit of profits over lives. In the construction industry, the calls by industry for more education and "good" employers setting a standard for the rest would be laughed out of the room in other areas of public policy. Whilst there can be value in initiatives by "good" employers, these "good" employers have no leverage over the "bad" ones. The BCDAG knows the costs of this policy. We do not ask for purely enforcement or punitive measures to change behaviour and save lives. We merely argue that simply relying on what is effectively self-regulation by the employers is inadequate.

5.   Strategic Forum for Construction Tower Crane Group

  5.1  The BCDAG welcomes the input we have had into the work of the Tower Crane Group and we believe that many of the recommendations will improve the provision of information on safety standards into the industry.

  5.2  However, the BCDAG is disappointed at the refusal of the Strategic Forum for Construction Tower Crane Group, in its short-term action plan released on 28 November 2007, to support the recommendation of the BCDAG for a central publicly available register of cranes as part of a strategy for improving the transparency and visibility of cranes used in the industry. The arguments by the industry for self-regulation and leadership by `best practice' employers as the most effective approach to reducing fatalities and injuries is not supported by the evidence and one more worker or member of the public killed is one too many. The BCDAG will continue to campaign for an industry that is properly regulated and for a regulatory agency that is properly funded.

  5.3  The BCDAG understand that in some countries in the world, eg France and Holland, a state inspector is present every time a crane comes on site. That's what we'd like to see in Britain. The HSE urgently need more government resources to be able to keep the public safe.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1.  A national register for all cranes used in the UK, with relevant information to be publicly accessible.

  2.  There must be an enforcement blitz of the construction industry, and in particular tower cranes as a matter of urgency.

  3.  There must be an inquiry into, and an end to the precarity, casualisation and lack of worker involvement in safety in construction. There must be powers given to trade unions and employee safety reps to issue improvement and prohibition notices on employers and to be given "authorised powers" to complement the work of the HSE inspectors.

  4.  There must be an inspection of all major construction sites, and tower cranes by an inspector at the commencement of each project with random follow up spot-checks.

  5.  The funding cuts to the HSE must be reversed and funding expanded to ensure that the level of inspections, issuing of notices and prosecutions can all be increased to allow the HSE to meet its 60-40 target for proactive work.

  6.  A tripartite process involving all the construction trade unions in the lead up to the Olympics must be established to ensure education, best practice and standards are maintained throughout the industry.

  7.  A properly funded HSE, committed to proactive inspection and enforcement of safety standards in the construction industry, combined with severe penalties for employers who kill through negligence, is the key to a twin-track approach that also combines an educative and consultative role for employees, trade unions and employers to lift standards in the industry.

BCDAG

January 2008





 
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