Thank you for inviting me to open your seminar this morning. I would like to thank the Chartered Institute of Building for organising the seminar.
Given the current construction boom which we are experiencing in Ireland, seminars such as this are not just simply important or timely, they are also essential. All the worthy legislation in the world will not make an impact unless it is understood and activated by the practitioner at ground level. The information and educational value of seminars such as this should not be underestimated - if even one-third of the audience here to-day go away with a better appreciation of health and safety strategies then it is a day well-spent. Looking at the title of to-day's seminar I am reminded that the stark opposite to "getting it right" is "getting it wrong" and this distinction could, in the end, be the fundamental difference between the life and death of a construction worker or, indeed, serious injury.
The current boom in the building industry is one of the most visible signs of our strong economy. A large quantity of work is being commissioned by clients who are anxious to have this work completed speedily and at a minimum cost. It is in these circumstances that we must insure that we never lose sight of worker health and safety. Workplace injury or death is, of course, a tragedy for all affected and so in light of the current construction boom it is incumbent upon us all to "get it right" when it comes to the management of construction health and safety.
The principal legislation dealing with workplace health and safety is, of course, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989. This Act clearly sets outs the duties of both employers and employees in providing a safe and healthy work environment. The Act applies to all places of work, and to all employers, employees and to the self-employed. However, the very particular nature of the construction sector, with its proliferation of self-employed workers, sub-contractors and its transient workforce, is specifically addressed in the context of the 1995 Construction Regulations. While I do not want to go into the detailed requirements of these Regulations, as I know that this area will be covered by other speakers, I would like to emphasise that these Regulations are based on the concept of a chain of responsibility, and are based on the premise that health and safety does not begin at site level. Rather, it begins at the very inception of the project, at the planning and design level. What I want to stress here is that the statutory legislative obligations in relation to the management of construction projects exists, but what is absolutely essential is that these legislative obligations are followed through at ground-level and are fully incorporated into health and safety processes.
While the primary reason for workplace health and safety legislation is the protection of the lives and health of workers, there are other sound business reasons why one should conform to one's legislative obligations. A workplace accident incurs costs not just for a worker, but also for an employer in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism, legal costs and increased insurance costs. So why then would an employer ignore workplace health and safety ? Perhaps it is out of ignorance of one's obligations or out of complacency towards those obligations, or perhaps it is as a result of that very human attitude of "it won't happen to me". But construction sector accidents and fatalities do happen, and will continue to happen, until all players in the industry fully accept, and act upon, their responsibilities.
The Health and Safety Authority will continue to vigorously pursue anyone who does not abide by these statutory responsibilities. In relation to the construction sector in 1998, the Authority issued almost 300 prohibition notices, in addition to initiating over 30 prosecutions. Also, during 1998 a number of sites were closed down by order of the High Court, and several others were threatened with this procedure. In general, while site closure is a measure of last resort, it is effective in bringing about significant improvements in safety standards in nearly all cases.
At the same time, the Authority has continued to inform, to promote and to encourage compliance with legislation through extensive contacts and co-operation with the industry itself. While I do not believe that anyone who undertakes a construction project deliberately sets out to mismanage the health and safety elements of that project, I do believe that there is still a battle to be won in changing attitudes and mind-sets in order to create a genuine "safety culture".
Construction projects are not undertaken lightly by anyone - the average client will ensure that they have secured legal title to their land or building, that they have full planning permission and that there is a full economic justification for the amount of money being budgeted. Therefore, as part of this planning and preparation process, they should also abide by the requirements placed on them by the Construction Regulations in relation to the appointments of a Project Supervisor for the design stage and a Project Supervisor for the construction stage.
I know that the Health and Safety Authority is currently preparing guidelines to the Construction Regulations for clients, and I welcome the provision of such information. I would also encourage anyone who has any query, be it a complicated or a straightforward query, in relation to the Construction Regulations to contact the Authority for clarification. A simple phonecall may clarify a situation which, left unchecked, might have disastrous long-term consequences.
I should point out that the principles of effective health and safety management include the principles of assessment and of regular review and updating. Such principles are equally applicable to health and safety legislation itself, and in this context, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989, is currently being reviewed at my request. It is ten years since the introduction of this Act and given the changes in workplace practices in the intervening period this is a very timely review.
One of the areas under review is the whole area of Safety Representatives. This has particular significance for the construction sector, which by its very nature and structure, has not always lent itself well to the Safety Representative system. Notwithstanding this, it is, however, vital that there is ownership of the health and safety process by employees in all sectors and particularly so in the construction sector where physical activity and interaction is at an optimum. Structured and accessible channels of on-site communication and representation can contribute greatly to site safety.
The construction sector is an acknowledged high-risk sector, but we must move beyond the mere acceptance of this fact towards more effective identification, prevention, management and control of these high-risks. It is possible to work safely within a high-risk sector, but what is needed is a genuine commitment to safety. By your presence at this seminar you are making that commitment to safety and I would strongly urge everyone to take away, and to put to practical use, the advice and information they gather here to-day, and can I also ask for your full co-operation in the meaningful implementation of the Construction Regulations in general, and the Design and Management aspects in particular.
Once again, I wish to thank the Chartered Institute of Building for organising this Seminar and, also, for inviting me to participate in the proceedings.
Last modified: 26/09/2001