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CONSTRUCTION FATALITIES

 

Government Inquiry must recognise construction achievements

 

Construction News is scheduled to contain an opinion piece by Philip Poynter on the sensitive subject of construction fatalities. The article highlights the progress made by the construction industry in reducing fatalities over the last 50 years and the actions required to help continue making improvements. The text is reproduced below.

Background – On 4th December 2008 James Purnell, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Secretary of State announced that he had commissioned an inquiry into the underlying causes of construction fatalities and appointed Rita Donaghy, CBE, former Chair of ACAS, as independent Chair. The Inquiry will report to Ministers and the HSE Board later in 2009. The work will involve: 

  • comprehensive review of existing work on fatal injuries with specific reference to vulnerability and;
  • deeper analysis of underlying causes including factors outside the health and safety system.

Conventional wisdom on construction deaths The conventional wisdom tends to characterise the construction industry as dangerous, poorly managed with an appalling and deteriorating fatal injury record.  Why otherwise would the government announce an inquiry looking exclusively at fatalities in construction? However, the reality is that the construction industry has made huge strides in reducing deaths and was until recently experiencing the lowest rate and number of fatal injuries on record.

Every death at work is a massive and tragic event for all those involved and aiming for zero deaths is a realistic aim that is adopted by many major contractors. My own career in health and safety has been devoted to that objective. However, inaccurate representations of the industry record does nothing to further the aim of reducing deaths and at worse serves to demoralise those directors, managers, workers and their representative bodies that work tirelessly to control risks in very arduous environments. 

So, what is the true picture of construction industry deaths? We need to look back over 50 years to secure a realistic perspective.   

Progress over 50 years? A document in my files entitled “Report on Safety and Health in the Building and Civil Engineering Industries 1954-1958″ shows that in 1958 there were 258 deaths during building operations and works of engineering construction. Construction deaths fell throughout the 1960’s and 70’s to around 100 deaths per annum in the 80’s.  This was seen as a ‘plateau’ with commentators concerned that it may not be possible to go any lower. However, construction fatalities went on to fall to an all time low of 59 deaths in 2005-2006. The latest official figure for 2007-2008 stands at 72 worker deaths although current intelligence suggest the number may fall back to near the all time low during 2008-2009.

So, a more realistic picture of construction deaths is one of progressive reduction over the last 50 years culminating in an all time low in terms of the number and frequency of deaths in 2005-2006. A pattern that looks likely to be sustained to the end of this decade.

What has not changed? Some things have not changed. In 1958 a total of 25 workers died falling through roofing materials and this was the second most frequent cause of fatal falls (falls from a working place or scaffold was No1). In the last 10 years some 70 building workers died falling through fragile roofs or rooflights and it remains one of the biggest killers. The increase in metal roofs and load bearing rooflights has reduced the risk on new structures but fibre cement roofs and fragile rooflights will remain on existing buildings for many years to come.

This is one area where a concerted effort and innovative strategy is urgently needed. A shift of emphasis from the contractor towards the building owner, occupier and client will help. These parties need to be aware that in the event of such a death in 2009 clients, owners and occupiers of existing buildings could be subject to a Police/HSE investigation considering potential offences under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. 

Transparency Deaths at work are rare events, even in the highest risk industries or mostly poorly managed business. Detailed and timely information on fatal injuries can therefore be a very powerful tool to help raise awareness of risk and the steps that can be taken to avoid such tragic events. HSE publish the initial notifications of all fatal injuries each month. However, the information is brief and less informative than it might be. There is a need to avoid compromising any subsequent criminal proceedings, however, more information could be provided and it is in the public interest to do so.

Sharing information Likewise, ‘organised’ sectors of the industry and HSE possess detailed information on fatal and serious injury incidents that could be made available. Many hours are spent by the industry and regulators investigating such matters yet there is no mechanism for sharing the information so as to improve awareness, understanding and to motivate others to secure effective control. The data could be held on a simple database shared by all for the common good.

Keeping a balanced view The Government Inquiry into construction fatalities is to be welcomed. It should open up a constructive debate and help the industry move forward towards the zero deaths target. However, in doing so it will hopefully recognise and not lose sight of how far the industry has come in the last 50 years.

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