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Basement extensions continue to fail safety checks

18 Dec 13 Builders excavating domestic basement extensions in London are continuing to flout recognised safety procedures, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has found.

Digging down
Digging down

HSE inspectors ran a two-day blitz on basement sites in the capital last month and found that more than a third failed to pass muster.

The results mirror a similar initiative carried out earlier in the year.

Underground extensions continue to be popular among wealthy Londoners because house prices are so high as to make them economically attractive. Some homes now have so much underground that they are ‘iceberg houses', with more below ground than above. However, these projects remain controversial as they can be very disruptive to neighbours.

On 20 and 21 November a team of HSE inspectors visit 107 sites across the boroughs of Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea.

Enforcement action was taken at 36 of those sites – an overall rate of 34% – with 41 prohibition notices served requiring dangerous practices to stop with immediate effect, and 21 improvement notices served requiring safety improvements to be made.

The majority of the prohibition notices related to unsafe work at height, with dangerous excavations also an area of concern. Inadequate welfare provision accounted for three quarters of the improvement notices.

In March 2013 inspectors visited 110 homes, served 50 prohibition notices and stopped work at 34 sites.

However, despite the clear evidence that domestic basement projects remain a cause for concern, HSE’s lead inspector for the initiative believes some progress is being made.

This is because the results showed that those contractors who had previously engaged with HSE in activity of this kind had made improvements. The poorest standards were generally found among firms who were previously unknown to visiting inspectors.

HSE principal inspector Andrew Beal said: “The overall picture is on a par with other targeted inspections of basement work, and we also identified the same kind of problems relating to unsafe work at height and excavations, and poor welfare facilities.

“That suggests the message isn’t getting through, or that there is complacency towards health and safety across this sector of the construction industry. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

“What we found during the inspections was that better standards were usually at sites managed by companies who are known to HSE, a number of whom have previously received enforcement notices requiring improvements to be made.

“It illustrates that lessons have been learned, and we hope the latest failings that required action will have a similar impact.”

Domestic basement projects are technically-challenging and carry substantial risks. AS before, common issues found during the inspections continue to be:

  • Work not properly planned
  • Failure to appoint a competent temporary works engineer to design suitable propping to support excavations and existing structures
  • Poor or absent welfare facilities for workers
  • Basic precautions missing, such as edge protection to prevent falls from height, especially into excavations

A number of the failings identified may result in prosecution for alleged breaches of health and safety legislation. The recipients of enforcement notices cannot be identified yet.

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