Construction Decade in Review: 2014 - Health and safety failings hit home

With a new decade nearly upon us, we decided to reflect on the events of the past 10 years, and the impact they’ve had on the construction industry. Standards of health and safety in construction were hitting the headlines again in 2014…

Health and safety has always been a contentious issue in construction.

Stories of incidents and fatalities arising from working at height, operating machinery, working with dangerous chemicals, slips, trips and falls (to name a few) regularly feature in industry news – if you read the excellent daily e-bulletin from our friends at Construction Enquirer, you’ll know what I mean.

But in December 2014, the true severity of the industry’s health and safety failings were highlighted in a survey conducted by construction workers’ union Ucatt (now merged with Unite).

The survey found that:

  • More than 21% of respondents felt their employers don’t take health and safety seriously
  • 11% of respondents believed their workplace had become more dangerous in the past year
  • 55% of respondents said there had been no improvement in workplace health and safety in the past year
  • 37% of respondents said they or a colleague had suffered a workplace accident in the past year, with half of the accidents resulting in time off work

Rewind to April 2014, and the Guardian reported that more workers had died on UK construction sites since 2001 than soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Then there’s construction’s poor record for worker mental health. Between 2011 and 2015, some 1,400 construction workers committed suicide – the highest rate of any profession over that five-year period – with many others suffering the long-term effects of depression and other mental health conditions.

The ‘One Death Is Too Many’ report, authored by Baroness Rita Donaghy in 2009 for Gordon Brown’s Labour government, warned of a severe risk of more deaths and serious physical injuries as building activity began to pick up following the recession.

She wrote that the industry’s use of self-employed labour meant that workers “were less likely to report unsafe practices because they ‘wanted a job next Monday’”.

In her report, Donaghy recommended additional funding and resourcing for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), to allow for more site inspections and accident investigation and prosecution to help raise health and safety standards.

But in 2011, the coalition government announced a 35% cut in the HSE’s budget. What’s more, Ucatt data showed that the number of unannounced construction site inspections fell by 7% between 2011 and 2013.

Since then, new standards – such as ISO 45001, published in March 2018 – have been introduced, in an attempt to give all organisations (including those in the construction industry) a framework for improving physical and mental health standards for their workers.

And charities such as Mates in Mind – established by the Health in Construction Leadership Group, with support from the British Safety Council – are working to support construction industry employers in addressing mental health issues in the workforce.

More posts in our ‘Construction Decade in Review’ series

2010: How a fragile coalition set the stage for the decade

2011: Leaning tower sets a new world record

2012: Construction takes gold

2013: Help to Buy mortgage scheme launches

2015: Construction Design and Management Regulations come into force

2016: Modernise or die – a shocking message to the sector

 

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