The health and safety requirements surrounding self-build are a mess. On large, commercial building sites the rules are exacting and restrictive, yet on self-build sites it seems to be a free-forall. No hard hats, no security fencing — nothing is apparently required. How can this be?

It transpires that this divide between commercial sites and privately organised homebuilding activities is quite deliberate, and is reflected in the law as it now stands. The main piece of legislation governing building work is the Construction Design & Management Regulations (known by all in the trade as the CDM Regs). This was first brought into effect in 1995 and then amended in 2007 — CDM Regs 2007 now rule the roost. They apply right across the UK but there are one or two specific exclusions: work must be of sufficient duration (30 days or ‘more than 500 person days’) before deemed long enough to warrant inclusion. In addition, domestic clients are exempt from having to comply — regardless of how large or long their project might be.

Domestic clients? Do they mean self-builders and renovators, too? They most certainly do. Here is the definition: ‘A domestic client is someone who lives, or will live, in the premises where the work is carried out,’ provided that the premises does not relate to a trade or business, whether for profit or not. That seems clear enough. So, if you’re building your own home, you can ignore the CDM Regs.

Now these Regs are oft criticised for being an administrative nightmare. If a site comes under CDM, then you have to:

  • notify the Health & Safety Executive (HSE)
  • designate certain people – designer, principal contractor, etc. – with specific tasks
  • develop a health and safety plan
  • undertake risk assessments
  • ensure that the work carried out meets the plan
  • ensure that everyone working on site is ‘competent’ (whatever that means)

The CDM Regs are, in fact, one of the most mind-numbingly dull documents you could choose to lay your hands on, and you could read it from cover to cover and still be none the wiser as to how to organise a site safely. Self-builders can count themselves lucky that they don’t need to comply. The simple fact is that the Regulations were designed this way because the HSE is a relatively small body and doesn’t have a hope of policing every small building site up and down the land — so it has chosen to concentrate on the big fish only.

The insurance industry, however, does not accept any such distinctions between domestic and nondomestic works. Everyone undertaking building work needs to cover the risk of accidents on site. This is normally done via ‘Contractors All Risks Insurance’ or its self-build equivalent, ‘Site Insurance’, which covers the risk to both members of the public (Public Liability) and operatives (Employer’s Liability) who might choose to sue you if they come to grief.

But insuring the risk is one thing. What about reducing the risks in the first place? Surely there must be some guidance out there for self-builders wanting a trouble-free build? It seems not. Whereas once the HSE produced booklets on site safety, today’s offerings are almost exclusively limited to managing the risks — which boils down to explaining what the CDM Regs consist of, and instructions on how to comply with them. If a self-builder, their architect or builder doesn’t have to comply with the Regs, they are going to give little thought to the risks involved. Which is daft, because accidents can and do happen on self-build sites, and even if legislation doesn’t cover them, there should still surely be some useful guidance out there which might just prevent a few of them.

Instead, self-build health and safety has fallen into some sort of black hole. It’s not quite true to say that there is no safety legislation applying to small building sites. It seems that builders working on self-build sites are still meant to comply with the Health & Safety at Work Act and the Working at Height Regulations, but much of this legislation is couched in terms of the employer’s responsibility to his/her employees. It doesn’t have much to say to the genuinely self-employed, and precisely nothing to say to the DIY builder.

However, we all recognise that there are very real risks involved on building sites. So, it makes good sense for us all to know a little bit about them beforehand, and to try to minimise risk on our own sites.

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