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Health and Safety Regulations: Cranes

Volume 691: debated on Monday 22 March 2021

Before we begin the Adjournment debate, I have to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there is an open and adjourned inquest for June Harvey, who died in July 2020. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow reference to those proceedings in this debate by waiving sub judice in respect of that inquest. All hon. Members should, however, be mindful of matters which may be the subject of future legal proceedings, and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for her courtesy in consulting the Table Office in advance of this debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.(David T. C. Davies.)

The issue of health and safety with regards to cranes used in construction was brought into sharp focus in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse by the collapse of one such crane on 8 July last year. It is with great sadness that I pay tribute to the friends and family of June Harvey, who died as a result. The collapse also destroyed the homes of those who lived around June, and temporarily displaced many other residents in the surrounding area. It is important that this trauma and pain is given the recognition it deserves.

On the night of 8 July around 100 residents had to evacuate their homes after a nearby crane collapsed and were temporarily housed in two hotels. One of the hotels was relatively close to the site and situated among amenities in Whitechapel. The other was much further away, in Canning Town, and with almost no such amenities near it. Clearly neither of these temporary housing situations were ideal, and all those constituents were uprooted from their lives. They were unable to return to their homes, some for weeks, only having the possessions that they grabbed on their way out with them. This meant that some could not go to work; for example, a constituent who worked for Transport for London was unable to access his uniform. Families who were already having to educate their children from home were subsequently forced to do so in cramped hotel conditions. All of this, against the backdrop of the covid-19 pandemic, has continued to cause great disruption. However, none of this compares to the loss experienced by the family of June Harvey, and of course many more could have lost their lives or been seriously injured in Bow that day.

The crane was operating in a built-up residential area, as evidenced by the number of constituents who had to leave their homes that night and go to alternative accommodation. I am in no position to draw conclusions on who is to blame for the collapse in Bow or assert causation; it would be simply wrong for me to do so. Rather, I wish to bring attention to the human stories around this issue and raise concerns more generally about the ongoing practices within the construction industry, especially in regard to the use of large cranes in residential areas.

Indeed, there continue to be a number of incidents and accidents involving cranes. In Battersea in 2006 two people were killed in a crane collapse, a crane operator and a member of the public; 10 years later Falcon Crane Hire was fined £750,000. The same company was also responsible for a similar collapse in Liverpool in 2007, resulting in one death. Closer to home, there was a collapse in Canary Wharf during work on the HSBC tower, with three workmen killed. It was found at the time that there had been three further crane scares in the previous six weeks and that safety paperwork had gone missing. These incidents must therefore be set in the context of campaigners and trade unions raising concerns about the under-regulation of health and safety in the construction industry amidst a drop in inspections and cuts to the Health and Safety Executive, particularly since 2010.

Trends of deregulation are widespread, most notably with regard to the safety of cladding, which has also affected many of my constituents and was pulled into sharp focus by the Grenfell Tower fire. The latter has rightly been pointed to by many as a warning of what could continue to happen should health and safety regulations not be tightened. Evidence upon evidence makes it clear that the regulatory framework needs to be looked at again to ensure the safe usage of safe cranes as part of safe construction of safe buildings. We need robust legislation and robust enforcement.

Crane safety relies in part on adherence to the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, which place duties on people and companies that own, operate or have control of work equipment. The Health and Safety Executive, in laying out how to comply with this protocol, writes that equipment must be

“safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate”.

This provision does not, however, contain any legal requirement for certification of those operating cranes, only stating that such equipment is to be

“used only by people who have received adequate information, instruction and training”.

The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 also apply to cranes. These regulations set out that crane operations must be

“planned by a competent person;…appropriately supervised; and…carried out in a safe manner.”

The approved code of practice for this piece of legislation defines such a person, who can also be responsible for assessing such equipment, as someone with

“appropriate practical and theoretical knowledge and experience of the lifting equipment to be thoroughly examined”.

These two regulations do not strike me as being sufficiently robust. The definition of a competent person able to test equipment and plan a crane operation is worryingly vague, and as is often the case with this Government, it takes responsibility from their hands. I therefore urge the Minister to tighten up regulations around crane usage and the construction industry more generally.

The Grenfell fire tragedy is also a warning to us all in relation to how such incidents as I have dealt with are responded to by Government. When we look beneath the rhetoric, the endless legal complexities and the passing of the proverbial buck, the truth is that years have passed since the Grenfell tragedy, yet still no one has been called to account. One of the many frustrating battles the Grenfell community has been obliged to fight was simply to be rehoused, with some of the most vulnerable survivors still not rehoused years later, due to the severe lack of investment in affordable housing.

I am conscious that the investigation into culpability for the aforementioned Battersea crane incident took 10 years—10 years—to discover that 24 bolts were faulty in the crane that collapsed. I believe it would be unjust for my constituents to have to wait that long, and I ask the Minister today what steps her Department will be making for this investigation to be concluded in a much swifter manner. The verdict on Battersea was reached only roughly four years before the incident in my constituency. If the same time were taken in relation to this latest incident, we would be waiting until 2030.

With investigations taking so long, it is really hard to imagine any sufficient action being taken as such collapses are forgotten. In the meantime, while no organisation has been found legally liable for the negligence or criminal health and safety offences that may have caused this incident, my constituents, who have done nothing wrong and who have been bereaved, are suffering great distress, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder, and they face uncertainty and hardship.

To conclude, the incident that took place in my constituency last year has had a lasting impact on many of those constituents and residents who have had to leave their homes. Many have contacted me even recently due to worries that there may be further works at the location that might lead to further crane usage. When I was visiting residents at the two hotels in the weeks following the incident, someone who had witnessed the accident at first hand described to me that they still feared the crane collapsing when they were going to sleep at night in the hotel room. We must have swift answers about what happened locally, including how the tragedy was, and indeed is being, handled, so that those affected can achieve a sense of justice and closure, and we can be assured that something like this can never happen again.

I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for securing this debate on such an important issue. Before I respond, I must pause to pay tribute to her constituent June Harvey, who tragically died in the incident involving a tower crane in the hon. Member’s constituency in July last year. Her family and friends have my heartfelt condolences.

I have been informed that the investigation into the tragedy is ongoing. The Metropolitan police is leading on this, with the support of the Health and Safety Executive, in line with the work-related death protocol. That agreement sets out how the police and regulators will work together in such sad circumstances. Both will continue in their efforts to bring the investigation to a conclusion as quickly as possible. As the investigation is sub judice, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further, other than to say that it can be very challenging for all concerned to wait for the conclusion of a complex investigation process, especially when it concerns the loss of a loved one. The hon. Member has rightly taken the opportunity to raise in the Chamber the wider issue of tower crane safety, and while I am unable to discuss the incident that has prompted the debate, I will endeavour to respond to the wider points raised.

Tower cranes are complex structures found across the country. At any given time, there are 800 to 1,000 estimated to be in operation. People need to feel that there is an effective legislative framework in place to ensure the suitable and safe operation of tower cranes. The statutory framework regulated by HSE for tower cranes consists of several pieces of health and safety legislation. The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998, known as LOLER, contain most of the measures in place to ensure tower crane safety. That includes ensuring that careful consideration is given to where cranes are sited, that all lifting equipment is periodically thoroughly examined and that lifting operations are properly planned according to a written safe system of work.

Thorough examination of cranes under LOLER should take place each time a crane is installed and before it is put into service, and inspection should take place at least once every 12 months while it is in service and after exceptional circumstances have occurred—for example, if the crane has struck another structure. Examiners must be competent and have sufficient authority and independence to ensure that any examination recommendations are fully and properly acted upon. That can be achieved through membership of the Safety Assessment Federation or appropriate approved accreditation. There is a statutory duty for examiners to report serious defects identified during any examination to HSE.

Also of relevance are the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998, or PUWER, which require tower cranes to be properly maintained, suitable for the work and conditions and only operated by properly trained people. Cranes should have a comprehensive maintenance record kept, and information on safety should be available to all crane users.

On that point, after the Battersea incident, a group of campaigners gave evidence to various Committees of the House, which resulted in a crane register being developed. The register was scrapped after 2010. Does the Minister have any views on whether that should be brought back? In my view, it should.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the existence of the former tower crane register. The tower crane register was a short-lived statutory scheme requiring duty holders to send the HSE information about any tower cranes they were erecting. It was intended to provide reassurance to the public. There was, however, no demonstrable improvement to tower crane safety, and the regulations and register were revoked in 2015 as a result, but I do take her point.[Official Report, 13 April 2021, Vol. 692, c. 2MC.]

Other pieces of legislation relating to the working of tower cranes, including working at height, do require work to be properly risk-assessed. Cranes supplied for use should meet essential health and safety regulations. Construction work that requires the use of a tower crane should have a suitable safety management system in place. Under section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, all duty holders need to reduce the risk to people not employed by them—for example, members of the public—that arise from the use of tower cranes, so far as is reasonably practicable.

To summarise, over time this comprehensive legal framework has been developed so that it suitably covers all aspects of tower crane operation in the work context. The information and clarity on how duty holders must comply with the legislation is also set out in a range of freely available publications by both the HSE and the industry.

I do not want to pre-empt anything that the Minister is going to say, but the HSE is clearly underfunded and it is not able to undertake inspections proactively, as it should. The UK record’s is quite bad when it comes to having enough inspections. Does she agree that the HSE needs to be funded properly so that it can be proactive, as opposed to reactive, in dealing with such matters?

This Government have taken steps—particularly in relation to covid—to ensure that the HSE has been able to secure the extra funding that it has needed. For example, it has been able to assist further in response to the covid-19 pandemic, with an extra £14 million from the Government this year. The HSE remains a widely respected regulator because it delivers high-quality regulatory outcomes in workplace health and safety. I understand the hon. Lady raising this point, but I reassure her in that regard.

Duty holders must comply with the legislation set out in the range of publications by the HSE and industry. The HSE publishes the approved codes of practice for LOLER and PUWER on its website. That website provides a wide range of explanatory guidance for businesses and workers, and has had more than 10 million views. It also provides explanatory guidance on the safety of tower cranes, including full information about planning, safe systems of work, supervision and thorough examination. The HSE supports industry bodies, particularly the Tower Crane Interest Group, TCIG, which has also published extensive guidance and technical notes on its website. HSE works with the British Standards Institution on the production of tower crane safety standards, particularly on BS 7121, which is a suite of guidance on lifting operations.

As I have mentioned before, at any given time there are over 800 tower cranes in use across Great Britain. Since 2011, there have been 91 reported separate incidents involving tower cranes recorded by the HSE, including 11 tower crane collapses. Tragically, six people have lost their lives during these incidents, including, sadly, in the case that has given rise to tonight’s debate. The HSE, as the regulator of tower crane safety, investigates all reported incidents involving a tower crane collapse on construction sites. These are rightfully treated as very serious, though they are infrequent incidents.

Investigations and research conducted by the HSE and industry have shown that several causal factors can contribute to failures and dangerous occurrences relating to tower cranes, including adverse weather conditions; human or operator error, both in the erection and operation of the crane; poor communication of instructions; and failure to have in place effective maintenance and examination arrangements. When the cause of a tower crane collapse involves a serious breach of law, the HSE takes appropriate enforcement action. Since 2011, the HSE has served eight enforcement notices and taken eight prosecutions in relation to tower crane incidents. It works with trade associations, standards bodies and industry groups post incidents to share any lessons learned to assist in improving crane safety in the future.

In conclusion, tower cranes are covered by a comprehensive legislative framework. The HSE uses the powers that it has been given to regulate tower crane safety effectively, including by taking strong enforcement action. It also works with industry to continually improve tower crane safety standards. Although infrequent, incidents with tower cranes are carefully investigated because of their high consequences, to ensure that any lessons learned can be captured and, of course, that appropriate enforcement action is taken.

Once again, I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to the House, and for her thoughtful and passionate contribution in the Chamber this evening. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the ongoing investigation into the tragic death of June Harvey, as it is sub judice. As the investigation is being led by the Metropolitan police, I think it would be more appropriate for me to ask the Minister for Crime and Policing to provide the hon. Lady with an update on the progress of the investigation.

On the points raised in relation to the HSE’s work on the regulation of cranes, and any areas that I have not been able to address, I will ask the HSE to respond to the hon. Lady where appropriate. The tragic incident prompting tonight’s debate has highlighted to us all the importance of tower crane safety. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government continue to support the regulatory regime for tower cranes, as well as the work of HSE and industry in ensuring their safe use.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.