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Carnage in the construction industry

Cuts to the Health and Safety Executive will lead to more killer bosses being able to get off scot-free, says STEVE MURPHY

A dark shadow is currently hanging over construction workers, which makes today, International Workers’ Memorial Day, even more important than usual.

As the industry finally begins to recover from recession, there are already early indications that fatalities are rising.

In the last month in London, where the industry is growing most rapidly, there have been three fatalities.

These deaths have all occurred on major sites, which, if you believe the employers and the Health and Safety Executive, are the safest.

It is not just Ucatt that is concerned at a likely rise in construction fatalities.

Baroness Rita Donaghy, who produced the excellent One Death Is Too Many report examining construction safety, recently warned that the construction industry is sitting on a “ticking time bomb.”

She believes that rising workloads, coupled with new inexperienced workers entering the industry will lead to an increase in deaths.

Yet again, we have not learnt the lessons of history, as after every previous post-recession growth in the construction industry, deaths have increased.

Before the recession began in 2008 the construction industry was killing six workers a month, or 72 a year.

Last year, following six years of recession, 39 workers were killed in the industry, and construction remains the most dangerous industry in Britain.

What should be even more disturbing for workers worried about their safety is that the safety net protecting workers is being ripped apart.

By next year the Health and Safety Executive will have seen its budget cut by 35 per cent.

In many sectors it is no longer allowed to undertake vital life-saving unannounced inspections.

Although inspections have continued in construction, the number being undertaken has fallen, as has the number of enforcement notices and prosecutions being undertaken by the HSE.

Putting it crudely, employers prepared to break safety laws are unlikely to be caught, unless something catastrophic occurs on their site.

It is not just the weakening of the HSE that should concern construction workers.

We have also seen a systematic attack on safety laws by this government.

The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations accident reporting system has been so watered down that it no longer acts as an early warning of growing safety problems in a workplace.

Important life-saving regulations such as the tower cranes register and the hard hat regulations have been scrapped.

The government has also made it more difficult for a worker to claim compensation following an accident at work.

And worse is to come as it is clear that the government is intent on dismantling the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Part of the government’s Deregulation Bill, which is currently before Parliament, will mean that thousands of self-employed workers will no longer be covered by the Act.

In construction this will result in carnage — over 40 per cent of the industry is officially self-employed.

While workers may still be officially covered by the Act, what they are told at site level will be entirely different.

Unscrupulous employers and employment agencies will tell workers that they aren’t covered and so can’t claim compensation if they are injured at work.

Given the gathering storm facing construction workers safety, the events, rallies and meetings occurring throughout the country today are vitally important.

Workers’ Memorial Day is the day when we remember the dead but also vow to fight for the living.

It is often one of the few opportunities when workers have the opportunity to meet their colleagues and talk about safety concerns and where workers can rally together in opposition to attacks on their safety.

As it is International Workers’ Memorial Day it is important that we do not forget fellow construction workers who have been killed and injured abroad, where safety laws are often even weaker or non-existent.

Following a Ucatt mission to Qatar last month my thoughts will be especially with the families of the hundreds of migrant construction workers dying in that country every year.

With each attack by this government on safety laws and regulations, union organisation is becoming more and more important.

Sites that have independent safety reps are proven to have far fewer accidents.

The challenge for Ucatt in an anti-union industry such as construction is both to find workers prepared to take on these roles and also to force employers to recognise them.

The grim reality is that unless workers are organised in their workplaces and take responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others, deaths and injuries will increase.

There can be no more important challenge for a union than to ensure that its members are safe at work. It is a challenge that Ucatt knows all too well and one which it will always meet head on.

Steve Murphy is general secretary of construction union Ucatt.


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