The construction industry is sitting on a "ticking time bomb", with inexperienced workers being recruited to work on London's major building sites at a time when safety standards are being run down, according to a former government adviser on the sector.
Baroness Donaghy, who wrote a landmark report, One Death Too Many, for the last Labour government, said there is a severe risk of a rise in deaths and serious injuries as building activity picks up during the recovery. Since 2001, 760 workers have died in industrial accidents on UK building sites.
The number of site-related deaths in London, where growth in construction is strongest, has doubled recently.
Donaghy said she was appalled by a 35% cut in the budget of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2011, after she had called in her March 2010 report for more funding to allow it to function properly as a regulator. The report was widely accepted by the Labour government, but has since been ignored by the coalition.
Donaghy predicted that companies would cut corners and that accident and deaths would increase. "If there is an upturn, as is obviously happening in London, there is a danger that skills have been lost during the recession, and people who are insufficiently skilled will be taken on. And that's when the deaths and accidents will start taking place."
She added: "I do believe that if the recession is ending, the number of accidents will increase. Is it a ticking time bomb? Possibly right, yes. There is a real danger, without a well-resourced HSE, that corners will be cut."
Only 10% of construction workers are trade union members and the industry has taken on increasing numbers of casual workers over the past two decades.
A freedom of information request from the construction workers' union, Ucatt, showed a 7% fall in unannounced inspections of construction sites between 2011-12 and 2012-13, though the HSE said the number of inspections had risen in 2013-14 to make up for that dip.
The FoI request also revealed a fall in improvement notices – which are HSE-issued orders to employers to address safety risks – from 1,021 in 2011-12 to just 800 the following year. And the number of employers being prosecuted for safety offences also fell, from 456 to 410.
Steve Murphy, the general secretary of Ucatt, said: "I sincerely believe the construction industry is chaotic. And deaths on sites will tragically rise in the next year."
However Heather Bryant, chief inspector for construction at the HSE, said the organisation was adequately resourced, and that construction was one of its priority areas.