HC Deb 05 May 1971 vol 816 cc1537-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hawkins.]

11.48 p.m.

Mr. James Hamilton (Bothwell)

Before I came to the House I worked in the steel construction industry for many years. I was national president of my trade union which at that time was the Construction Engineering Union but has since been amalgamated and is now the Construction Section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

Accidents at work bring a great deal of distress to the people who suffer them and to their wives and families, and we in this House, as the legislators for the country, do not apply our minds sufficiently to this problem. We are rightly concerned at the number of days lost through industrial action, but tend conveniently to forget that more working days are lost through injuries and industrial disease than through industrial action. I have been given some figures by the British Safety Council and I am greatly indebted to that Council, as indeed is British industry as a whole, both workers and management, for the part it plays in industrial safety.

The figures are as follows. In 1969, 8.5 million days were lost through industrial action, but in the same year 24 million days were lost through accidents and industrial disease. In the same year there were 649 fatal accidents in British industry. Of these some 65 were in the construction industry. Therefore in 1969 one in two fatal accidents occurred in the construction industry. The number of reported accidents in industry was 322,390. Some 44,570 of those were in the construction industry, a figure of one in seven. It would appear to be an accepted fact that the construction industry seems to be the worst possible industry in regard to the incidence of accidents, including fatal accidents.

In 1965 about one in every 31 operatives sustained an injury on site which resulted in an absence from work of three or more days. By 1969 the incidence of reported injuries rose to one in every 27 workers. This may be misleading owing to the possibility of under-reporting, an occurrence said to be common in the construction industry. Taking this into account, the incidence of reportable injuries may have risen from one in 22 in 1965 to one in 19 in 1969, allowing for a 40 per cent. under-reporting. The incidence of fatal accidents has also increased over the last five years from one in 6,030 on 1965, to one in 4,500 in 1969. Since there is less possibility of underreporting in this sphere, these figures may be taken as accurate.

This is a bleak prospect. A new recruit entering the civil engineering side of industry, taking a man with an average working life of 35 years, has a one-in-50 chance of sustaining a fatal accident. A recruit to the building trade has a one-in100 chance of being killed at work. In general industry, the figure is one-in-450.

One cannot make these points without trying to find the causes. Many points of view are put forward by legislators, employers and trade unions. I believe that each and every one of us must accept our fair share of responsibility. The workers themselves in many instances do not apply the existing safety regulations, nor do some employers. On the steel construction side of industry I have discovered that 51.1 per cent. of accidents are caused by men falling from various heights; accidents caused by objects falling from construction sites amount to 18.5 per cent. These figures relate to the period between 1965 and 1969. Machines, hand tools, stepping on or being struck by objects, and handling difficulties are the main causes of other percentages which I do not intend to mention.

It is interesting to note that in 1969 in my part of industry, on the steel construction side, 16 steel erectors were killed and 1,323 injured. This is to be seen against a working force of some 40,000 steel construction workers. In 1966, there were 21 fatal accidents and 1,367 accidents. In 1967, the respective figures were 19 and 1,535. In 1968, 19 and 1,499; in 1969, 38 and 1,206; in 1970, 20 and 1,311. From 1965 to 1970, the figures have changed little. The responsibility is shared by workers and management, but one of the major causes is that workers in this dangerous trade earn, as senior erector craftsmen, 10s. 9d. an hour. To make a reasonable wage, even when working at 500 feet, they rely on bonus payments, forgetting their responsibility for their own safety and for their wives and families.

When I was a union official, my members constructed the Forth road bridge. Our members constructed the Severn bridge and the Tay road bridge. Their work is of national importance. Every power station built since the war has been built by the steel erectors. The safety regulations on the construction of the Forth road bridge were of the highest order, which I would recommend to any employer, but even then, two of our members were blown off a catwalk in a gale and fell into the river. One of the bodies was recovered half an hour later but the other has not been found to this day.

There seems to be no safety regulations for material stacked in a construction yard. I remember seeing a pile of steel flange plates fall inwards on a lad of 29 who lost both his legs. This left a marked impression on me. I was sick for days, not only at what I had seen but at the thought that anything similar could happen again. At Longannet power station, in Scotland, we had three accidents in one month. Our members had to take industrial action to get the management to admit them as members of the site safe safety committee. This is a serious problem and I hope that the Minister will try to assist those of us who are trying as best we can to bring some stability and responsibility into this industry.

A similar situation arose at the power station at Kings Norton, London. I gather that members of my union are still fighting to be recognised as appropriate persons to serve on these safety committees. Could anyone in any circumstances accept a situation where legislation does not make it mandatory that men working in the industry should be eligible to be members of their appropriate safety committee? It is nauseating and disgusting to talk about the numbers of days lost through industrial action. However, it would be interesting to discover the numbers of days lost because men have to take industrial action to get recognition of their right to serve on safety committees.

I am aware that the Robens Inquiry on Safety and Health at Work is now taking evidence. My trade union, via its general secretary has given evidence to this inquiry. I sincerely hope that when the inquiry is concluded, the Government will waste no time in laying its report before the House so that we can look at it and at the same time perhaps strengthen the regulations.

The last Government introduced the Employed Persons (Health and Safety) Bill which, because of the election, did not really get off the ground. I assure the House that the trade unions were very much in favour of that legislation. We all have a part to play. We can apportion the blame, as it were, in different directions; but the legislators are responsible for expediting the best possible safety regulations for industry as a whole, particularly regarding steel erection.

Bearing in mind the numbers of accidents which take place at work and the trials and tribulations to which I have referred, I hope that the Government will continue to build up the industrial rehabilitation units. The unit in my constituency is making a tangible contribution towards rehabilitating not only my trade union members, but workers throughout the whole of British industry who have had accidents at work and who, in many cases, are not capable of pursuing the jobs they were doing prior to their accidents.

I thank the Minister for listening so attentively. I shall now resume my seat to give him the maximum time in which to reply.

12.3 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Dudley Smith)

The hon. Member for Bothwell (Mr. James Hamilton) has, quite rightly, referred to the distress and difficulties which arise for families and relatives when people are killed in accidents in the construction industry. Indeed, we read about crashes on the M1 and other horrific incidents which get temporary headlines in the newspapers. Unfortunately, accidents are all too frequent in the construction industry, and in industry generally, and, apart from small coverage in local newspapers, they rarely achieve the publicity which they deserve to discourage others finding themselves in similar situations.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was able to raise this subject tonight. It is fitting that we should discuss the safety conditions of workers on what was, until a few minutes ago, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Owen, who could be described as one of the fathers of the Factories Act.

It is perhaps especially fitting, because it was at New Lanark, not many miles from the hon. Gentleman's constituency, that Robert Owen first went to manage a cotton-spinning mill and did much to improve the conditions of sanitation, welfare, hours and wages, in which even children of 10 years of age toiled for 12 and 13 hours a day. Happily, times have changed and Owen's vision of decent conditions of life for factory workers has long been a reality.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an aspect of industrial safety with which my Department is concerned, namely, the construction industry. He has a lifetime of experience in the industry, and he knows better than most that regulations reduce the heavy toll that accidents have in industry, but that they are not entirely the answer. The co-operation of managements and workers in observing the regulations is vitally necessary. Nevertheless, regulations are needed to provide a yardstick for the industry, and we have a comprehensive set of fairly up to date safety regulations for the construction industry which have been contributed to by successive Governments.

There are three current codes of construction safety regulations made under the Factories Act. They apply to both building operations and works of engineering construction. In addition, certain provisions of the Factories Act apply to the construction industry; for example, those concerned with the guarding of machinery. Then there are other special codes of regulations such as the Work in Compressed Air Regulations and the Asbestos Regulations.

In addition to regulations for safety in the construction industry, there is a code of regulations governing health and welfare which was made by the previous Administration in 1966. These require the provision of adequate washing facilities and sanitary conveniences on sites. They also oblige contractors to provide necessary and suitable protective clothing for anyone who has to continue working in the open air during bad weather. The provision of adequate and suitable shelter and accommodation and for clothing and for taking meals near the site is also catered for in the regulations, as is proper provision for first-aid, which is not to be under-estimated.

I am glad to say that these regulations have resulted in a general improvement in the standard of welfare facilities on sites. This is perhaps more noticeable on sites run by the large contractors, but I assure the House that my Department is keeping an eye on compliance with the regulations by the smaller contractor, since these matters cover the whole spectrum of industrial operations.

In terms of the number of regulations applicable to it, it is fair to say that the construction industry is a highly regulated one.

Until comparatively recently, the inspection of construction sites was part of the normal work of the general factory inspector. Two developments which took place in the early 1960s, however, led to a change of practice. First, the scope of the Construction Regulations, which had hitherto been confined to building operations, was extended to civil engineering construction. Second, analyses of the figures of accidents reported to the Factory Inspectorate revealed that they were rising at a faster rate in the construction industry than in industry as a whole. Because of this, separate construction districts were established in November, 1966, coinciding with the area of the regional Factory Inspectorate divisions, and construction district inspectors were appointed. The latter are general inspectors who have specialised in construction work.

At first, the construction districts were staffed entirely from the general inspectorate. But it had also been decided to set up a Construction Inspectorate, to be recruited from among persons with considerable practical experience of construction work and recognised expertise in the industry. The first of these construction inspectors was recruited in April, 1968, and there is now a grand total of 81 inspectors engaged solely on construction work. A competition for the recruitment of additional inspectors is being held at the moment.

We are convinced that their practical experience enables construction inspectors to enforce the regulations in greater depth at a much earlier stage than newly-recruited general factory inspectors. One indication of this is that since the reorganisation there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of firms which have been prosecuted.

I would not wish to claim that regulations and their enforcement by the Inspectorate are anything more than two of the factors which influence construction industry safety. As I said at the outset, both sides of industry have, and do play, a constructive part in improving its safety record. Over the past two years, the trade unions and employers' organisations concerned have co-operated and in the production and publication of a comprehensive manual on construction safety, which will be well known to the hon. Member.

I was glad to be able to attend the recent exhibition on construction safety material in this House which was sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mr. Tebbit). That most interesting exhibition also marked the publication by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors of the final chapters of the safety manual which is now almost the Bible of the construction industry concerning safety. That manual explains in simple terms the legal obligations on employers and employees under the regulations and offers advice on working methods and practical safeguards to meet those obligations. It is of immense value and I hope that it will play an increasingly important part in the safety of the industry as time goes by.

There are, of course, many other instances of management's interest in the promotion of safety in the construction industry. The hon. Member rightly says that we must keep management on its toes. I believe that we should keep everybody concerned with the industry on their toes in the interests of society.

The Oil and Chemical Plant Constructors Association is bringing out a safety manual on the civil engineering work peculiar to that industry and the Concrete Society is co-operating with the Institution of Structural Engineers in the preparation of a code of practice for temporary support work in the construction of bridges. Both projected publications are to be discussed this year at conferences at which the Factory Inspectorate will take an active part.

The hon. Member rightly spoke from his experience about steel erectors who work at heights, where, alas, even a minor slip or mistake can result in a horrifyingly fatal fall. Like the hon. Member, we are concerned that the incidence of accidents, especially fatal ones, resulting from falls is still too prevalent.

What, then, can be done to bring down this devastatingly unhappy toll? Successive Governments have made comprehensive safety regulations concerning all aspects of the construction industry, as I have tried to relate. The last code of safety regulations—the Construction (Working Places) Regulations, 1966—contains detailed provisions for safeguarding, among other things, the conditions under which steel construction workers do their job. For example, Regulation 38 deals with the provision of safety nets or safety belts for such workers in circumstances where a safe working platform cannot be provided. In addition, the British Standards Institution has issued specifications on the design and strength of suitable nets and belts.

I am pleased to say that a British Standards code of practice advising contractors where and how to use safety nets is in an advanced stage of preparation. I am confident that where these regulations are adhered to, even work at great heights can be safely carried out, as was shown during the construction of the Forth Bridge, where nets were widely used.

The hon. Member referred to the Forth bridge, of which he has great personal knowledge. When the Forth bridge was first built in the nineteenth century, there were 70 fatalities. We can thank the regulations of successive Governments that in 1964 there were no more than four fatalities. Even so, I agree very much with the hon. Member that four are too many.

While it is true to say that the regulations are wide-ranging, they are legal instruments and, perhaps, for this reason they are not always easily understood at site level. The admirable manual on construction to which I referred should help. So also should the steel erectors' training courses that are run at the Redpath-Dorman Long Centre in Middlesborough. This is one of the many examples of management doing its best to promote safe methods of work, and I am glad to report strong union cooperation in this.

These courses, which are organised by the firm's chief safety officer, are, I am glad to say, also open to steel erectors from other firms. They have been publicised in the industry and I hope that no opportunity will be missed by those involved to take advantage of this training.

I wish to stress again that everybody connected with a site or any sort of construction work, management or workers, has a part to play in seeing that safe methods of working are used and that the regulations are observed. There is no room for taking risks and this aspect requires a partnership between both sides of industry. I am glad to say that the Training Board has taken this lesson to heart and is doing all it can to promote safety.

I am pleased to announce, in response to the hon. Gentleman's moderate and sensible speech, that the provisional figures for 1970 show that total accidents in construction have been reduced from an average of 45,000 annually in recent years to just under the 40,000 mark, the lowest total for nine years. Fatal accidents are down by 20 per cent. from last year's figure of 265 to 206. This is an impressive performance and represents a lot of effort over the years. This reduction gives one a certain amount of heart, but until the figures are brought down even further we must not start waving flags.

In discussing overall accident statistics, it is important to remember that an accident becomes legally notifiable to the Factory Inspectorate only if it causes absence from work for more than three days. In this context, I remind the hon. Member of what I said when his Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summer-skill) raised the subject of industrial accidents generally last December. The three days' absence criterion is about 50 years old, but the economic pressures and social conditions that existed when this criterion was made have, happily, changed for the better.

It is generally accepted that because workers are no longer subject to the sort of economic pressures that at one time might have caused them to return to their jobs in the minimum time, the figures of reported accidents do not give a fair indication of the safety performance of the construction industry or for that matter, any other branch of industry.

I cannot, however, accept that any valid conclusions can be drawn from a comparison between the number of days lost through industrial injuries and the number of days lost through strikes. Absence from work through injury or sickness is a greater hardship to the workman and his family than the temporary disruption of a work plan may be for his employer.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.