The number of workers killed each year in construction in Britain has remained in the region of around 70-80 since 1996-1997. In London, construction employs five per cent of workers, but causes half of all deaths at work.
The reason that it is a killer industry is not that it is intrinsically dangerous. Most accidents are caused by easily preventable incidents such as falling through roofs or from ladders and scaffolds. What makes construction so dangerous is that workers are organised in a way that makes it very difficult for them to fight for improved safety.
Eighty-five per cent of the work in construction is done by subcontractors. The industry has a highly mobile workforce, with workers often moving from project to project on a short-term basis. This means that injuries often go unreported. Workers are commonly employed ‘cash in hand’, both as a means of reducing costs and as a way of driving down labour conditions in general on a site or a job. This is what the Shrewsbury pickets came out against. In total it is estimated that between £4.5 billion and £10 billion worth of construction work across the country is undertaken cash in hand.
Casualisation costs lives. Health and Safety Executive figures show that the annual injury rate for workers with short job tenure is 5.7 times that for workers whose job tenure is at least five years, while over one in five of all reportable injuries are sustained by workers who have been with an employer for less than a year.
The answer is the same as it was in 1972: construction workers must have real rights and be organised in strong trade unions that don’t get involved in sweetheart deals with employers (see Red Pepper, April 2004). The Hazards Campaign and the trade unions have long argued for a system of ‘roving’ safety reps that would be able to move from site to site, to provide inspections and represent building workers on issues of safety and to stop the job when there is an imminent risk of death or injury.
Extracted from Safety Crimes by Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte, forthcoming from Willan Publishing in June. For information on roving safety reps, see: www.hazards.org/ safetyreps/safetyreps.htm