35 construction workers died in Britain last year, yet the Tory government keeps cutting our protection, writes BRIAN RYE
CONSTRUCTION is the most dangerous industry in Britain. Last year 35 workers were killed. One death is too many; 35 is far too high.
Yet 35 deaths was a record low for the industry. Prior to the recession in 2008, construction was killing double that number of workers and in the early years of the 21st century deaths were in triple figures.
Given this extreme loss of life it is not surprising that today Workers’ Memorial Day is a key date in the calendar for construction workers.
It is the day when workers come together and remember their friends and colleagues who have been killed or injured at work.
It is also the day when workers reaffirm their commitment to fight like hell for the living.
The theme for this year’s Workers’ Memorial Day is strong laws, strong enforcement and strong unions.
The first two sentiments are particularly apt. Our worker-hating Westminster government is hell-bent on dismantling existing safety laws and weakening the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to such a degree that it becomes entirely ineffective.
Since 2010 there have been repeated piecemeal attacks on safety laws. Weakening of safety laws and provisions include: regulations involving head protection being scrapped, the tower crane register, introduced following the Battersea tragedy, being removed, while rules making it harder for victims to claim following accidents at work have also been introduced.
In a particularly sinister piece of so-called red tape-cutting, many self-employed workers have been removed entirely from being covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act. Officially this change in the law excludes construction workers.
The reality is that in an industry where up to half of workers are registered self-employed, the message on sites is now “Don’t bother reporting accidents as you are not protected anyway.”
By 2020 the HSE will have almost exactly half the income it received in 2010. A particularly disturbing situation given that in 2010 the HSE was already admitting it had nothing like the resources needed to effectively police dangerous industries such as construction.
The HSE claims that construction has been spared the majority of cuts that have affected other industries. For example, inspections still occur in construction unlike most other industries.
But if you dig a little deeper the full scale of the lack of enforcement and activity becomes apparent.
Killer bosses are not being prosecuted. The HSE has a target of prosecuting in 60 per cent of fatal accidents. In 2007-8 it was only achieving prosecutions in 51 per cent of cases and that number has declined substantially in recent years.
For the families of a loved one killed at work, justice delayed is nearly as bad as justice denied. The delays in achieving a conviction following a construction death are shocking.
On average it now takes 879 days for a prosecution to even begin following the death of a worker, and nearly three-and-a-half years (1,267 days) for a conviction to be achieved.
Some extreme cases take even longer. It took nine-and-a-half years following the deaths of crane driver Jonathon Cloke and bystander Michael Alexa in September 2006 in Battersea before the company responsible for their deaths, Falcon Crane Hire, was finally held responsible and fined £750,000.
While the delay in convictions is increasing, the number of inspections being undertaken by the HSE and the number of inspectors is declining.
Over the last two years, as the construction industry has been digging itself out of recession, the number of inspections undertaken has fallen by 8.7 per cent.
The regional breakdown of that decline is even more worrying. The number of inspections in Scotland declined by 55.7 per cent, in the north-west by 32.5 per cent, in the north-east by 28.5 per cent and in the south-east by 19.6 per cent.
That decline is not surprising, as a freedom of information request made by Ucatt has also revealed that there are just 132 construction inspectors in Britain and Northern Ireland — down from 141 in 2011-12.
Those figures don’t tell the full story as in London, the south-east and the eastern regions — which account for 46 per cent of construction activity and where, in places, the industry is booming — there are currently just 36 HSE inspectors. That’s down 25 per cent from 48 in 2011-12.
It says a great deal about the commitment, dedication and professionalism of HSE inspectors that there are any convictions at all and that any employer who cuts corners is ever caught and deaths aren’t higher.
Given the huge amount of construction sites in operation at any one time there is clearly nothing like the number of inspectors needed to ensure workers’ safety.
The problems of the HSE highlight just why it is so important that the final part of this year’s Workers’ Memorial Day theme — strong unions — is achieved. Put simply, a union workplace is a safe workplace. Where a union safety rep is in place, sites have fewer accidents and workers are safer.
The challenge in an industry which is still emerging from the blacklisting scandal, where sites are not permanent and where work is often both casual and temporary, is in ensuring that more sites are unionised.
Brian Rye is acting general secretary of construction union Ucatt.