Selecting a suitable contractor

The case reveals an altogether darker side to the conduct of the company, which would not be apparent from casual enquiry


  • Trevor Rushton Watts

05 September 2019

Selecting a contractor for minor work is notoriously difficult: unless the firm is known to you or recommended by someone you trust, the risks are legion.

Seemingly bona fide companies can have a hidden side. Would you be content to recommend a company that had consistently failed to take adequate care of its workers and exposed them – and presumably customers – to risks that could have life-changing consequences?

For a professional the answer is of course 'No'; but it is not always that simple. Uncovering the truth can be difficult, and i™s not always particularly easy to locate Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecution records.

For instance, try searching for a repointing contractor in the north of England and you may come across a suitable candidate – K&M Pointing has been trading for 25 years, working for domestic and commercial clients and restoring buildings for the National Trust.

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; it looks as though the company knows what it's doing.

Well, perhaps not such a glowing record. In 2018, Manchester magistrates sentenced the director to a two-year suspended prison sentence, 180 hours' community service and £2,000 in costs. The HSE had investigated after a call from a member of the public who was concerned about the way the firm was undertaking repointing work and exposing its workers to silica dust from grinding out mortar joints.

Photographs showed 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 and the firm had persistently cut corners to reduce costs. Furthermore, it 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 work would have left them significantly disadvantaged had something happened. The case reveals an altogether darker side to the conduct of the company not apparent from casual enquiry.

One can sometimes feel a tinge of unease about 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, being brutally honest with yourself, are there any times that you have 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.

Aside from 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.

Bear in mind that, according to HSE statistics, there were 38 fatal injuries to workers and six to members of the public in 2017-18, a figure close to the average of 39 fatalities annually over the past five years. Of that number, 47 per cent of deaths were due to falls from height.

Each year, around 3,000 construction workers also suffer from breathing and lung problems – bricklayers and masons account for about 26 per cent of reported cases of silicosis, although this figure is thought to be conservative.

Take a moment to think of the impact of those deaths and those diseases on the families and friends of the victims; then reflect on the steps you can take to see that risks are minimised and those who perpetuate them are brought to account.

Trevor Rushton is a technical director at Watts trevor.rushton@watts.co.uk

Related competencies include: Health and safety

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