Will worker shortages see a rise in health and safety incidents?
For years now the construction industry has been complaining about the lack of available skilled workers, blaming such shortages for the consistent failure to reach government house building targets. But despite these frustrations, firms may actually be doing their employees a favour.
Maintaining standards all round
Taking on less projects, or completing them more slowly allows constructors to raise the quality of their output (even if senior directors would rather they knocked out more houses more quickly). But reduced output is also beneficial to employees, helping to keep them safer on site.
Project deadlines, profit margins and company politics are all strong incentives for firms to operate with a skeleton crew, and in most cases construction has always worked this way. But where those pressures become acute through staff shortages or aggressive cost-cutting, there will always be a temptation to cut corners, placing employees and the general public in danger.
Good news in general
The good news is that deaths and serious accidents in the workplace continue to fall, indicating that employers are either sticking to the rules, or the UK construction sector has some of luckiest the workers alive.
HSE stats for 2014 record 35 fatal workplace injuries in the construction sector, down almost a quarter on the five year average of 45. And the trend continues downward year-on-year.
The government may argue that these improvements are a direct result of new guidelines, rules and regulations. But the reality is that deaths are going down because employers are applying those rules and avoiding the temptation to cut corners.
Training plays a large part
Employees also appear to be taking greater responsibility for their own actions, operating according to the defined workplace risk assessments in place to keep sites safe. Increased uptake of the CSCS Tests by the CSCS scheme means that employees are expected to have at least a basic understanding of the risks associated with their profession, and the standards they are expected to maintain as they work.
What happens when the market starts to pick up?
Economic recovery is certain to re-invigorate the construction sector – new projects are already springing up around the country, showing that we may finally have begun to leave the recession behind. But accelerated growth presents the same temptation to cut corners, and relegate health and safety to a lower position in the list of priorities.
Many firms are hoping to overcome their staff shortages by recruiting from abroad. This will naturally present some issues as the legal standards elsewhere are often not as stringent as they are here in the UK. Employers will need to bear in mind that these migrant workers will need additional training to bring them up to the standard required to meet the regulatory requirements.
The urgent need for new construction workers will force employers to think creatively about how best to attract the right talent. But however they choose to proceed, health and safety must remain a priority if Britain is to get the houses it needs and continue to drive down fatal accidents at work.