Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to the newest version of your browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of Construction News, please enable cookies in your browser.

Welcome to the Construction News site. As we have relaunched, you will have to sign in once now and agree for us to use cookies, so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

How can we stop the carnage on the sites

Eighty people received prison sentences for cruelty to animals last year. Yet, although construction deaths rose by a fifth in the same period, no one has ever spent a day behind bars for causing death or injury to a building worker.

I remember the day that the Bear O'Shea fell into a concrete stairs, What the Horseface said when he saw him dead, well it wasn't what the rich call prayers.

'I'm a navvy short, ' was his one retort that reached unto my ears, When the going is rough, well you must be tough, with McAlpine's Fusil iers.

WHEN Dominic Behan wrote McAlpine's Fusiliers, his ballad about the experiences of Irish emigrants working in the building industry in the '50s, he must have hoped the conditions it described would soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Today, the song has become an anthem for construction workers, evoking for many a sense of solidarity with those who built post-war Britain, with its first high-rise buildings and its motorways.

Few industries can be as bad as construction at caring for its old soldiers. For evidence, visit any one of a number of pubs in North London, where the forgotten 'fusiliers' sup lonely afternoon pints during the cheaper 'happy hour' in bars where once they spent their hard-sweated wages as fit young men.

Forty years on, McAlpine's Fusil iers seems just as relevant.

Although construction technology has advanced considerably to produce engineering monuments such as the Channel Tunnel and Canary Wharf, construction workers still face the risk of death each day they go to work.

Statistics released last week, show that site deaths are up 20 per cent on the previous year.

Since the '50s there has been a sea change in public attitudes regarding health and safety. Today's cases of Repetitive Strain Injury and bans on smoking in offices seem a world away from the time when workers were sent to labour underground only to emerge with the bends, necrosis or lungfuls of asbestos.

Despite undoubted improvements in working conditions, last week's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics for fatal accidents in the construction industry for the year to March 31, 2000 should shake the industry to its core.

They show that 86 people died as a result of construction work, compared to 68 the previous year.

And this dreadful toll of carnage comes despite series of initiatives across the industry intended to improve safety in construction.

The Construction Design and Management Regulations were introduced in 1995 to integrate safety into all stages of the construction process, from drawing board to site.

And the HSE's Working Well Together initiative, the brainchild of the Construction Industry Advisory Committee, aims to instill a self-regulating safety culture in construction, provide safety standards and thresholds as targets for firms associated with the scheme.

Backed by industry and unions, it is now in its second year.

The industry's current flagship for image overhaul, the Movement For Innovation (M4i), has safety as a cornerstone issue in its Respect for People programme. Meanwhile, the government has just launched its Revitalising Health and Safety consultation paper on corporate manslaughter.

To the many well-intentioned people who have supported and developed these moves, the HSE figures must be deeply disappointing. Construction stands out as the only industry where the workplace death rate increased last year. All other industrial sectors registered a fall.

While managing to forge ahead with world-class technical innovation and engineering, construction still exposes its workers to levels of injury and death which would be unacceptable in other sectors.

The estimated fatal injury rate for construction is put at 4.5 deaths per 100,000 workers, up from 3.8 per 100,000 last year. In industry generally, the rate is estimated at 0.8 per 100,000, down from 0.9.

That means, working on a construction site, you are almost six times more likely to be killed than in another job.

This shameful rate means that construction accounts for onethird of all workforce fatalities.

Statistics for injuries are equally horrendous. Construction soars ahead of other industries, with a largely unchanged rate of about 391 injuries per thousand.

Kevin Myers, the HSE's chief inspector of construction, says that like any other public service department, he could argue about lack of resources. But at the HSE, construction is allocated resources disproportionately higher than its size in the economy, because of its poor track record.

Asked about the rise in fatalities, he cautioned against dwelling on statistical trends, because of the random nature of such accidents.

'The issue is more that there are between 70 and 80 deaths every year, which is unacceptable, rather than the fact that they rose last year. Last year shows improvement in major injuries but not so in 'Over three-day' accidents [those requiring more than three days off work] - but that could be due to better reporting, ' he said.

Is construction an inherently dangerous business which will always have a level of accidents and deaths?

'The vast majority are preventable, ' said Mr Myers. 'If the risks happen to be greater, then the measures to mitigate them should be proportionate to the risks.'

But when they are not, the punishments certainly do not appear to be proportionate to the crime.

Despite all the dirty linen surrounding safety, the industry boasts a clean sheet when it comes to imprisonment for killing construction workers.

Not one person has served a day in prison in connection with the death of a construction worker on site.

In fact, it could be argued that the courts seem to take animal welfare more seriously than the safety of construction workers.

Figures from the RSPCA show that in 1999, 80 prison and suspended sentences were imposed by the courts for animal cruelty offences, up from 73 the year before.

'Cruelty' to site workers appears to warrant less punishment.

Analysis by the Transport and General Workers Union of the fines imposed last year as a result of the 86 deaths in construction shows that in 11 cases, the fines averaged less than £600.

The overall average, which the TGWU claims is distorted by a number of large fines, is just over £15,500.

'It emphasises the absence of any real value on construction workers' lives, ' said Bob Blackman, the TGWU national secretary for construction and building workers.

'The judiciary thinks that death and injury is something you should expect in the sector. It gives you a feel for what people in power think of construction workers.'

Mr Blackman believes the government must change the law to enforce statutory minimum penalties if the judiciary does not begin to levy more serious punishment.

Mr Myers insists that, while the HSE carries out enforcement activities such as prosecutions and improvement notices and has campaigned for stiffer penalties, prosecutions were often difficult to bring.

'On a construction site, death is very rarely the result of someone doing something deliberately. For a manslaughter charge to be successful, there has to be an element of a smoking gun, and often that is not the case, ' he said.

He said accidents often arose from a set of circumstances, such as shoddy work practices or a lack of training, which is why companies, rather than individuals, are more likely to end up in the dock.

In the HSE's view, changes of attitude on site and self-regulation by the industry, rather than enforcement, offer the best prospect for improvement.

'We are trying to change the culture of the industry, and prosecution has a role in that. However I don't think the levels of fines are sufficient, ' said Mr Myers.

It is the legal precedent in courts that influences the level of fines imposed.

A leading construction lawyer agrees that the penalties under current legislation are too lax.

'Courts could impose higher fines but they probably leave them for the exceptional cases, ' said Michael Janney, partner at Kingsley Napley solicitors.

Government concern about the issue would seem to herald tougher times ahead for firms with a cavalier approach to safety.

After recent disasters such as the Southall rail crash, the Law Commission recommended a change in the manslaughter law, prompting the government to produce a consultation paper last May on corporate killing.

'Among the penalties being discussed are unlimited fines, remedial orders and freezing of assets if they are not complied with - different forms of sanctions which could put a company out of business and which are quite onerous.

This will give some hope to those who are looking for stronger penalties, ' said Mr Janney.

'If it was easier to prosecute and sanctions were increased, then hopefully you'd have an improvement in the safety record.'

Paralysed from chest down and forced to support a family on state benefits

PENALTIES for construction accidents often amount to little more than a few pounds - and compensation for some of the victims is of a similar magnitude.

Self-employed Kevin Brooks was working on Mowlem's Sainsbury's site at Tottenham Court Road in London at the end of May, 1999.

He was contracted to Cornish subcontractor Spiral Construction when a precast concrete spiral staircase he was installing crushed him, paralysing him from the chest down.

Apart from state benefit, compensation amounted to £800 from a whip-round on site after the accident, £220 from an appeal in Construction News to help him pay for specialist treatment and an offer for help from the Lighthouse Club, which has not yet been finalised. His sister's employer also donated £500.

The Health and Safety Executive decided not to take action, although Mr Brooks felt unhappy about the way its investigation was carried out.

'I was away from the job recovering, and it was my view of events against that of many others. It would seem that the others were keen to put the accident down to me, ' he said.

'Everyone said they were sorry, but I didn't have enough personal liability insurance and it seems that, once you're out of the industry, you can't get any compensation, no one wants to know.'

The father-of-two is still considering legal action for compensation to support his family.

Year to March 31 Who died. . .

Employees 59

Self-employed 20

Members of the public 7

Total 86

. . . and how

Falls from ladders 11

Electrical 11

Falls from edges/openings 11

Falls from scaffolds/platforms 10

Falls through fragile materials 8

Falls of loads or equipment 8

Demolition/collapse 5

Site plant 6

Others 16

Age profile (per cent)*

18-30 26 31-50 31 51-67 43

* Based on age statistics available

Source: Construction Confederation