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Bending the Rules

Selecting contractors for minor work is notoriously difficult; unless the contractor is known or is recommended by personal experience the risks are legion.

 

Article published in RICS Journal on page 47. Click here to read the full article.

 

Seemingly bona fide companies can have a dark side–would you be content to recommend a company that consistently failed to take adequate care of its workers and exposed them (and presumably their customers) to risks that could have life changing consequences? As a professional the answer is of course no; but its not always that simple; uncovering the truth can be difficult and its not always particularly easy to locate HSE prosecution records.

 

Search for a repointing contractor in the Northern Powerhouse and you may come across a suitable candidate - trading for 25 years; working for domestic and commercial clients; restoring buildings for the National Trust – “Building the Future and Restoring the past”. Sounds perfect – the testimonials are glowing and the promises from the director are reassuring. Interesting that there is no mention of trade body membership, but never mind; they look as though they know what they are doing.

 

Well, perhaps not such a glowing record. In 2018 Manchester magistrates sentenced the director to 2 years suspended prison sentence, 180 hours community service and £2000 in costs. HSE commenced an investigation after a call from a member of the public, concerned about the manner in which the contractor was undertaking repointing work and exposing its workers to silica dust from grinding out mortar joints. Photographs show a precarious platform suspended between the ridge of a roof and a tower scaffold together with a ladder perched on top. During the trial it was established that this was not a one- off incident, but that the firm had persistently cut corners to reduce costs and that furthermore had previously been found responsible for fly tipping building waste. Not only were the workers at risk of injury, but a failure to provide insurance against injury or ill health sustained during the course of their work would have left them significantly disadvantaged had something happened. The case reveals an altogether darker side to the conduct of the company and one that would not be apparent from casual enquiry.

 

One can sometimes feel a tinge of unease over consumer programme investigations into alleged “cowboy builders”. Contractors are certainly not all bad and those that are bring nothing but discredit to the wider industry. However, giving a brutally honest answer were there any times when you had condoned a risk or taken action that you knew was “cutting it fine”? You may be able to reply in the negative and all well and good if you can – but repeated acts of omission cannot be condoned; one cannot afford to turn a blind eye – Nelson may have got away with it rather successfully but his circumstances were rather different.

 

Aside from the potential lung damage, no injuries appear to have been suffered as a result of the Manchester case, but the outcome could have been so different. The offending work platform was some 6m above ground level and was not fitted with guard railing of any kind.

 

According to HSE  (www.hse.gov.uk/statistics) in 2017-2018 there were 38 fatal injuries to workers and six to members of the public – this figure being close to the average of 39 fatalities each year over the last five years. Of that number, 47% of deaths were due to falls from height. Each year around 3000 construction workers suffer from breathing and lung problems – bricklayers and masons account for about 26% of reported cases of silicosis although the figure is thought to be conservative. These statistics are bland, but take a moment to think of the impact of those deaths and those diseases upon the families and friends of the victims and reflect upon the steps you can take to see that the risks are minimised and those that perpetuate them are brought to account.

 

For more information please contact Trevor Rushton, technical director at Watts trevor.rushton@watts.co.uk

The Watts Bulletin is the technical companion to the Watts Pocket Handbook, the essential guide to property and construction, as used by professionals since 1983.

Watts Bulletin editor: Trevor Rushton.