by Ian McDonald
On 11th June, the Construction workers’ Union (UCATT) held a rally entitled ‘SOS: Save our Safety’ in an attempt to “highlight and expose the … Government’s attacks on health and safety”. This stems from a speech given by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in January 2012 in which he told an invited audience of entrepreneurs and representatives from small businesses that he is “waging a war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British business”.
Mr Cameron’s comments were, unsurprisingly, well-received by much of the written press – who have been at the forefront
of highlighting what they perceive as “health and safety madness.” Examples cited include residents in flats in South London being banned from hanging washing on their balcony washing lines for fear that items of clothing would fall on passers-by, and bans on children playing games of conkers in their school playgrounds, a harmless childhood pastime (certainly in my junior school days in the early 1990s – and shouldn’t we be glad that children still want to play conkers as opposed to playing on computer games all the time?).
Government proposals include a removal on the current requirement for companies to give health and safety information about their job vacancies to employment agencies. This means planned exemptions for self-employed workers from regulations and a cut to the Health and Safety Executive’s budget. No wonder that UCATT is concerned, given that the construction industry has the highest death rate of all industries, the slowness of investigations into deaths and the Government’s planned ‘war’ on Health and Safety.
UCATT counters what it perceives as the Government’s attack on health and safety legislation by reminding everyone that 49 construction workers died in accidents at work in the United Kingdom during the past year. It must also be remembered that construction workers made up the largest group (28%) of the overall total of 173 deaths in the workplace during the past year – higher than agriculture, manufacturing and mining/quarrying. Additionally, of the 332 deaths in construction which occurred between 2004/5 and 2008/9, according to the Health and Safety Executive less than half resulted in prosecutions despite evidence of management failure in nearly three-quarters of the cases.
I am not going to pretend that everything in the health and safety ‘garden’ is rosy, and daft rulings are made – but the Government does need to take a more mature look at the subject. Yes, there are problems, but I think this chiefly comes from poor interpretations of health and safety legislation rather than any problem with health and safety per se. The Government should be taking a broader view of health and safety issues, and not just pandering to a section of the media and the more vociferous politicians. We need improved legislation, and properly trained and accountable health and safety officers and legislators who deal with safety issues clearly and effectively, just as we don’t want to see any more instances of a small minority of people taking health and safety to a farcical realm with ludicrous interpretations of legislation.
Those connected with the Built Environment (especially in Construction itself) should not lose sight of the vital importance of health and safety in the UK’s most dangerous sector of work. They should not be afraid to defend the principle of health and safety against ideological attacks from a Government which seeks to roll back regulation and state intervention across the board; neither should they be afraid to continue to fight for even greater protection for those working in the industry. President Reagan once said that:
“Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives”.
In the mind of right-wing ideologues this duty only seems to apply to protecting their citizens from attack by foreign powers (or internal terrorists), but I would argue that this duty of protection applies equally strongly to the workplace, too.
About the author:
Ian McDonald is the Research Officer for the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment at Birmingham City University.