With an equal measure of both mild amusement and self-righteous smugness, it has been known for us, on occasion, to revel in the misfortune of all those hapless DIYers whose botched attempts to improve their properties over long Bank Holiday weekends are more likely to end up in a lengthy spell at our already over stretched A&E departments. With the holiday season once again in full swing, our pencils were being sharpened in readiness for the usual catalogue of sprained ankles bruised limbs and scrapped knuckles. And then everything changed when the latest damning health and safety statistics for the construction industry at large landed on our own desk – talk about people in glass houses and all that. There was us loudly pontificating on the fact that the great British public shouldn’t be let loose anywhere near a hammer or saw, when it seems we can’t even get our own house in order.
New figures* show that fatal accidents in UK construction have risen by almost 10 per cent in the past five years. There are now more than 1.6 deaths per 100,000 workers, which is four times the figure for all other big industries. It’s also double the rate for transportation and the storage sector and around two and half times that of manufacturing.
Despite many high profile campaigns in recent years, falling from heights is still the number one cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries in the construction industry, accounting for a mind boggling half of all deaths of site. As well as the human misery of these deaths, there is also a huge financial burden being inflicted on both the industry at large and the families of workers affected. The economic cost to Great Britain of all construction injuries and ill health was around £16.2 billion in 2018/19, and the majority of these costs fell upon the injured individuals themselves. Depressingly, latest figures for 2020 show the total cost was up by more than a third from 2018.
So, where is it all going wrong? Especially since the UK has some of the most thorough health and safety regulations anywhere, whilst our larger sites are now so regulated that there is the impression that one almost needs a special permit just to breathe these days!
One of the most striking statistics* is the fact that, males are seven times more likely than women to have a non-fatal accident or injury at work – and not just because there are many more male workers. In 2019/20 there were almost 400 non-fatal accidents per 100,000 male construction workers compared to just 52 for the same number of females.
It would suggest that the same macho dynamics of the building site – something which is now recognised as a major factor in the mental health crisis so prevalent amongst young men within the industry – is also at work when it comes to safety procedures on site. We’ve lost count over the years of turning up at small sites where even basic PPE appears to be in very short supply. A hard hat may appear for the camera, but is discarded as soon as we are heading down the road. Younger people, by their very nature, are likely to be less cautious when it comes to facing up to risk, adopting the attitude that nothing bad will happen to them, but death and serious injury are no respecters of age it would seem.
Pressure to meet deadlines, inevitably leads to short cuts and a make do approach with equipment that may not be up to the job. It’s one of biggest bugbears of all professional tradespeople to see a quote for work undercut by someone who quite clearly doesn’t have the appropriate plant and equipment to carry out the job safely and proficiently.
There will always be accidents on building sites, of course, and even the most professionally run are prone to basic human error from time to time, but the risks can be minimised. Training is key to protecting workers, whether it’s highlighting potential dangers or teaching them to make their own risk assessments. Then there is ensuring workers not only have the necessary PPE, helmets, safety goggles and slip resistant footwear but actually wear it at as a prerequisite of being on site.
Those in charge, whatever the nature or size of building project, have a responsibility to implement statutory rules, procedures and policies, and continuously assess what is working and what is going wrong. If an injury has occurred there should be a proper appraisal of when that individual is ready to return to full time duties and not be rushed back into the fray aggravating their recovery. Some companies are also being encouraged to implement buddy systems whereby people are actively encouraged to look out for each other, whilst temporary assignments, reduced hours and planning a stepped return for those who have experienced a trauma at work can also play an important part in making the workplace a safer and more productive place.
As the professional face of the building sector, the time has clearly come to step up to the plate, because the construction industry has been the fall guys for health and safety for far too long!
* Findings collated by specialist providers of plant hire, in London, Herts tools.
* figures courtesy of construction site storage experts Sitestak.