Construction has always been a somewhat risky occupation. However, the actual risk to each individual worker was seen to be falling – until recently. For example, in 2010-2011 there were 50 fatal injuries to construction workers. In 2014-2015 that was down to 35.
But those figures are for the UK as a whole, and they only track fatal injuries. Nationwide, more than 3% of construction workers will be injured on the job every year, and a similar number will fall prey to a work-related illness of some kind. This accounted for more than half a million days of missed work, and lower incomes for those affected.
Construction is becoming more dangerous in London.
Specifically, there was a 71% increase in the deaths of construction workers from overseas working in London last year. In an industry where almost all other danger metrics are falling, that increase is shocking, and it demands not just explanation but remedy.
So what is causing these deaths? Broadly speaking, the industry is suffering from its own success. The recovery of the UK’s construction industry has been dramatic, and there are more buildings going up and/or being remodelled than there were even before the global economic crisis a few years ago. More workers are employed, and even more are needed.
That means that the UK simply cannot supply the number of new workers it needs quickly enough. Workers from overseas, though, are available in huge numbers, and are eager to get their hands dirty here. Even more in demand than new recruits and trainees are skilled workers, and they don’t just pop into existence. More skilled workers are being recruited from overseas every day, and helping to sustain the expansion of this and many other industries. Nowhere is this influx of foreign skilled labour greater than in London.
But why are foreign workers in greater danger?
There are several reasons. The first is that there may be a language barrier. If someone shouts ‘Look out!’ you probably know what to do instantly. Imagine someone shouts ‘Uważaj!’ or ¡Cuidado! …would you know what to do? A Polish worker may be in the same situation, reacting seconds later to a warning, or forgetting to call a warning in English in an emergency.
Another reason is that safety standards and training vary greatly from country to country even within the EU, and even more so when you look farther abroad. That isn’t to say that safety training in other countries is necessarily worse than that here in the UK, but there are substantial differences in the ‘culture of safety’, and the concept of just who is responsible for ensuring the safety of everyone on site. These cultural misunderstandings and assumptions can cause dangerous conditions to be missed, and accidents to happen more often.
So what can be done?
Simply put, make sure your workers get additional safety training when needed, and make sure they get regular refresher courses AT LEAST as often as mandated. Remember, it’s not just about money, it’s about lives.