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Construction Safety in Australia | Think Ergonomics

The Quest for Construction Safety: No More Flowers

16 Aug 2017 Katrina James

Another headline, another man’s photo. Another grieving family and shocked workmates. I look at the Australian construction industry and see chronic pain, mental health concerns and – yes – death.

In March 2017 a young man was tragically killed on a major construction site at Sydney’s iconic new development, Barangaroo. He was struck by a heavy steel beam and killed instantly.

As of 2nd August 2017, thirty people have been killed on construction sites in Australia. That’s thirty-two people, mostly men, aged from seventeen to sixty-nine, who did not come home to their families after work that day.

On Sunday 6 August, 2017, three men were injured after a crane collapsed at a construction site at Sydney’s Wolli Creek. One man was seriously injured. A close call for those three men. A close call for their families.

As an Occupational Health Nurse on a worksite, I experienced the personal feelings and reverberations of a death. The shock and catching of breath in disbelief after a death in my own workplace. I’ve heard workmates, supervisors, managers and union reps challenge themselves “How did this happen?” “We’ve done this job so many times?”

I have felt the damp mood that settles over the job site. Workers down tools and try to come to grips with what happened. Funerals are held. As weeks pass by, fundraising barbecues are held for the families and workers mow lawns that will never again be mowed by their mate. Union leaders push for better site access. Meetings are held to campaign for the prevention of a repeat event. Serious investigations are carried out. But at the end of all those efforts – someone’s life has been brought to an abrupt end. Cut short, family left bereft.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Comprehensive research benchmarked key safety issues in the construction industry in Australia in 2015 (Safe Work Australia). The RMIT Centre for Construction Work Health and Safety Research have already tabled some ways forward for the construction industry.

Someone has to take the lead, pick up the baton and say – no more construction site deaths.

It’s been done before and I saw it happen. I have been working in the health sector of heavy manufacturing since 1987. In the 1970’s and 80’s there were many workplace deaths and serious injuries. The industry itself realised they had to make a change and in the late 1990’s they began.

It took many years of commitment, belief and engaging people in the workplace and the community to convince people things could be different. Many conversations were required to turn work practices around and even imagine a world where there was a significant reduction in serious injuries and no deaths. We wanted a community where workplace deaths no longer ran through our veins.

This company was BlueScope Steel. It was a newly listed business (previously BHP) with a new CEO needing to provide reputation and a healthy bottom line. This CEO believed improving employee safety was critical to achieving both of these. And so in 2004, BlueScope Steel began reporting injury data to shareholders via the annual report.

The result today is a company (BlueScope Steel Australia and New Zealand), with zero deaths since 2008 and an enormous reduction of serious injuries from 2000 to 2016.

It’s now time for the construction industry to do the same. As at March 14, 2017, nine deaths have occurred in the construction industry in Australia. If the rate continues, thirty-six workers will die on construction sites this year. That is three deaths per month; three workers not returning home to their families.

Newspaper reports suggest tight time frames and long shifts resulting in fatigue may be contributing. Research in Australia found “One quarter of construction employees indicated that they accepted risk taking at work” (Ref: Safe Work Australia 2015). Unions declare that if they had better access to sites then accidents could be prevented.

Why do construction workers accept risk taking? The Safe Work Australia study found 10% of workers break rules due to management pressure and 14% due to pressure from workmates. 30% cite the workplace itself prohibits workers from following safety rules. This could be due to lack of safety equipment or equipment provided in sub-optimal condition.

Far from blaming either party, employers agreed that 17% of employees bend the rules to achieve a target and ignore safety rules to get the job done.

The construction industry itself cites cost – they cannot afford to take the time to have the discussions and pre-planning meeting with all the specialists interacting on site.

I suggest it is time for the industry to consider their value on safety and life itself. The research is available, yet accident investigations are still being carried out and prosecutions are still being laid. It needs to end.

The cost not currently borne by the construction industry is borne by individuals and families in society. Where chronic pain and injury lead to an inability to work, society picks up the cost. Families bear the deficit of a relative they could have had.

If you are a construction business owner, CEO, board member or shareholder; one of your company’s employees could be the next serious injury or fatality in the industry. Be the one to make a change. Be the one closing the gap on serious injury and death in the construction industry. Don’t be the one sending flowers.