Barbara Davidson finds that health and safety issues raised by the horrific death of student Simon Jones at Shoreham harbour are all too often ignored.

GRAHAM Cosham knows the ins and outs of workplace health and safety like the back of his hand.

After a long career in the construction industry, he works as an independent safety consultant, advising employers how to stamp out unsafe practices and meet their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Euromin, the company which employed Simon Jones for just two hours before his head was crushed in a grab in the hold of a ship, was this week cleared of his manslaughter, but fined £50,000 for breaching health and safety laws.

Ask Mr Cosham if the tragedy of Simon Jones could happen again and he replies without hesitation.

"It's happening every day. Probably about two people a week are killed in the construction industry.

"In Brighton and Hove, some companies have learned from the Simon Jones case but many others are thinking, 'Well it won't happen to us'.

"A lot of people either don't know their legal requirements regarding health and safety or don't want to know.

"The attitude among many companies is one of 'Do I have to do this?'

"If they can get away with cutting corners, they do. A total change of attitude is needed towards health and safety."

Much of Mr Cosham's work is within construction, the industry with the highest death rate of all.

In the past year, there have been 295 workplace fatalities in Britain, compared with 220 the previous year. More than a third occurred in the construction industry with a further 17 per cent in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector.

Almost all the deaths were preventable.

Research has shown most were killed in falls, with scaffolders and roofers continuing to be most at risk.

Mr Cosham said: "We have a shortage of about 370,000 skilled workers in this country, such as plasterers and electricians. There is a real shortage in Brighton and Hove and along the South Coast. Anyone who can pick up a hammer can find work.

"A lot of companies do strive for safety but for a lot of small to medium-sized firms it comes down to price. It's time and money.

"If companies have deadlines to meet because of penalties and the client pressurising them, they sometimes end up cutting corners they don't want to cut, taking on unqualified staff and doing work in a way they don't want to.

"But why should people in the construction industry put their lives on the line for someone else's profit?

"For example, the law says anyone erecting a scaffold and working 2m or more off the ground should have a safety harness. How often do you see scaffolders with safety harnesses?

"Or take the guys working on the roads cutting paving slabs with disc cutters. Big clouds of dust are coming off the concrete, which could cause lung problems.

"The law says that for noise of more than 90 decibels you must wear hearing protection and that should be enforced by your employer. Some of these disc cutters are at levels of 108 decibels or more. Damage to the hearing is irreversible.

"But when you see guys using these machines in a public place with the public walking nearby, how many have goggles, dust masks, hearing protectors? Very few."

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) issued 11,058 enforcement notices in 2000/01, 2.5 per cent fewer than the previous year.

There were 2,077 informations laid and convictions secured against 72 per cent of them. The average penalty was £6,250.

Mr Cosham said: "People know there are not enough HSE staff around so they fob them off. They may get a visit from an inspector but they know they won't be back for another six months.

"In my opinion, some companies don't want their employees to know their rights because it might cost them money.

"But it's important for workers to know they cannot be forced into doing anything that could put their safety at risk.

"They should feel able to refuse to do a job they perceive as dangerous without the worry they might be sacked."

Mr Cosham believes the Government's target of cutting deaths and major injuries in the workplace by 40 per cent in the next four years is not ambitious enough.

He said: "There is no reason why deaths could not be cut to zero.

"Lack of awareness among companies is no excuse. There are some very good safety training companies in Brighton and Hove. People only have to look in the Yellow Pages."

Anyone wanting free advice on health and safety in the workplace can contact Mr Cosham at Greystone Associates on 01273 505121.