During the last decade there was a massive growth in the employment sector with the construction boom taking the lead at an increase of 500 construction jobs (Northern Ireland Economic Bulletin, cited in Simon, 2007, (online). While the employment rose, and so the accidents in the construction industry, that it has been a hot topic in the Northern Ireland Assembly debates and has become a priority issue of the Health and Safety Executive-NI. These accidents are not only restricted to the construction workers but to the public as well due to inadequately controlled construction activities. The loss of life, dismemberment, hospital stays and reduced income are but a few aftermaths of construction accidents, hence, the need for a serious and committed program to dramatically reduce the statistics. Moreover, with the growing economy of Northern Ireland, it is imperative that construction risks are minimized and maintain the highly skilled workers who are in great demand and whose skills are vital to the economy. With this, it is just fitting and proper that attention is brought to the matter, which hopefully will reinforce to employers and workers to actively and proactively play the role of worksite health and safety advocates.
Main Causes of Construction Accidents
“Safety is defined as when planned measures or precautions are taken to control situations and act in an endeavor to prevent injury to the person concerned, injury to others, damage to the workshop-its fixtures, equipments, and materials” (Walter, cited in Bolaji, 2005, p.1). However, safety is often neglected by both employers and employees especially in the construction industry. According to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, one of the most dangerous occupations in Northern Ireland is employment in the construction industry. Dangers usually abound in construction projects. Tools and materials are intentionally or inadvertently tossed around which might fall on somebody. Large and heavy equipment are moved from place to place which could hit workers. Great forces are used to move boulders and large objects. Harmfulchemicals are used which pose detrimental health effects. Accidents are inevitable even in a compliant jobsite. Construction accidents are caused by several factors which could be attributed to one or a combination of the management’s decision, worker’s actions, fortuitous events, and unsafe events. A study in Michigan University proposed that the three main causes of construction accidents are:
- Failing to identify an unsafe condition that existed before an activity was started or that developed after an activity was started;
- deciding to proceed with a work activity after the worker identifies an existing unsafe condition; and (3) deciding to act unsafe regardless of initial conditions of the work environment. (Abdelhamid, 2000, p.52)
In most cases, injuries occur due to task factors such as overexertion or overload of human activities. It could also be attributed to poor work practices, or non usage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Sometimes it could also be due to tools and equipment factors to include mechanical failure, and unsafe tools, hence, it is important that workplaces, tasks, and tools are designed with regard to its users. Management and environmental contributions include harmful substances, unauthorized entry to hazardous areas, and unguarded openings. Construction accidents are usually divided into height-related injuries or everything else. Height-related includes accidents resulting from a fall of the worker or an object. On the other hand, everything else is anything that is not height-related such as suffering from an electrical shock, injuries due to unsafe or defective tools and machineries, tripping over, or being struck by a moving vehicle. Table 2 summarizes the percentage of injuries per type of accident in Northern Ireland from 1996-2005. The figures indicate that most of the injuries are due to height-related accidents which are avoidable by installing safety railings, safety containment systems, or using safety harness for highly risky places. Falls from a height are also the leading cause of injuries in other countries. In Taiwan, falls contributed to 30% of work related fatalities (Chi et al, 2004, p.1). Chi et al (2004, p.1) also made associations with the causes for each type of fall stating that “falls from roof edges were associated with bodily actions and being pulled down by a hoist, falls through roof surfaces were associated with lack of complying scaffolds, falls from ladders were associated with overexertion, falls down stairs were associated with unguarded openings, and falls while jumping to a lower floor were associated with poor work practices.” It is posited that these accidents could be avoided should adequate precautions are strictly observed that encompass safe working attires, uncongested working area, adequate lighting and ventilation, proper guarding of moving parts and machines, and the availability of first aid equipment (Walton, cited in Bolaji, 2005, p. 2). To complement these pointers it is also important that the workers have the sound knowledge on how to the assigned task, sufficient training how to use the right tool and its care and maintenance. Specific feasible prevention measures for falls from scaffolds or staging is by using guardrails. However, prior to the installation of guardrails, and even after their installation, safety harnesses and an independent lifeline should be properly secured to an adequate anchor and used by those who may be exposed to any open edge or risk falling (MLID, cited in Chi, 2004, p. 6). For places where it is difficult or impossible to install guardrails, safety nets could be used instead. Visual markings or warning tapes should be used as warning signs on areas where guardrails are removed. For falls from building girders and structural steels, safety nets or fall containment systems should be installed since fixed barriers are hard to install in hazard areas. For falls through existing floor and roof openings, adequate covering such as wood or metal should be installed, otherwise guardrails should be used as warning. Access to unprotected openings should also be restricted to workers wearing a whole body safety harness with a secured anchorage. For falls from stairs or steps, handrails and ramps will be an effective preventive measure. This will not only prevent falls but will also serve as support to workers moving up and down the stairs. For falls from roof edges, safety belts are suggested. For hoisting related falls, personal fall arrest systems or guardrails should be used to facilitate prevention. For falls through the roof surface, roofing materials should be made sure of good quality.
Statistics of Construction Accidents
Simon (2007, [online]) averred, “it is nothing short of scandalous that a construction worker in Northern Ireland is three times more likely to be killed at work than in any other part of the United Kingdom.” This could also be construed that construction workers in Northern Ireland are more prone to accidents as opposed to their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. A comparative study of Northern Ireland’s fatal and non-fatal injuries per hundred thousand employees as opposed to Great Britain showed that Northern Ireland has a relatively higher fatal accidents of 1.3 versus 0.6 only to that of Great Britain. On fatal injuries, Table 1 shows that the most recent available data is much higher at 10.2. Closely looking the data shows an increasing trend on the rate from 2000-2002 and a slight decrease on 2004.
Falls from heights, slips and trips, poor manual handling, and unsafe vehicle movement are among the major causes of injuries. Seventy-six percent of all fatal injuries from 2001-2006 was contributed by the agriculture, quarrying, and construction sectors with falls in the construction sector taking the lion’s share which is two thirds of all fatal accidents in Northern Ireland.
Tables 3 and 4 from the Health and Safety Executive-Northern Ireland presents the summary of major and fatal injuries per type of accident with falls from height taking the top spot. Total major injuries also decreased significantly. However, despite the reduction, the overall rate is still high as opposed to the rate of other countries. It was reported that in 2005 and 2006, seven and six people died from work-related injuries respectively. The previous 10-year figure was much worse with forty-four casualties and five hundred workers with serious injuries sustained from working in construction sites. Aside from accidents, workers are also likely to suffer from illnesses due to exposure to harsh working condition and hazardous industrial chemicals. Additionally, Cree (2007, [online]) pointed out that “the cost to the Northern Ireland economy due to work-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses is estimated at 1·3% of the country’s gross value added or, in monetary terms, £300 million a year.” This information would also mean that construction accidents in the country results to over twenty deaths per year or an additional sixty deaths due to exposure to asbestos. This is also tantamount to eight hundred cases of major injuries or thirty-five thousand employees downtime equivalent to 5% of the total workforce.
Due to the constantly changing nature of the working environment, the risks associated with construction hazards are difficult to manage. The succeeding tables show the degree of risk faced by those working in the construction industry.
Programs and Legislations on Health and Safety
To address the growing concern on construction health and safety, Buildsafe-NI was created under the auspices of the Construction Industry Forum, whose overall aim is to reduce major injury accidents to 50% of the 2002 level by 2008. This initiative also developed other ways to significantly improve the standards of the construction industry by developing a communication plan to raise awareness on work-related risks and the measures to combat those risks. Best practices in the industry were also communicated through formation of regional groups and mobile training units that provides trainings for specific needs. Buildsafe-NI recognizes the importance of training inasmuch as it provides several benefits by changing unsafe behaviors by creating awareness and creating a culture geared towards compliant health and safety practices in the worksite. To address the issue that more and more migrant workers are employed in the construction sector who might not be aware of the health and safety regulations, which each worker should observe, health and safety booklets without the need for words were published. This is to make sure that language barrier will not be used as an excuse. Another milestone of the Health and Safety Executive-NI Legislation Unit, is the implementation of the Construction Design and Management Regulations (CMD 2007) on July 9, 2007 to replace the outdated and over-bureaucratic legislation of 1990. The objectives of the Construction and Design Management (CDM) of 2007 aimed to reduce accidents by being flexible to various contractual arrangements and emphasizing the importance of planning and managing work. CDM 2007 highlighted the enhanced duty of the client to better reflect their influence on health and safety standards. The enhanced duty of the client is the core innovation of the policy which compels the client to take reasonable steps to make sure the implementation and sustenance of health and safety standards in the workplace which complies with the Workplace Health, Safety, and Welfare Regulations. It also places the employers as the protagonist in maintaining arrangements that will enable effective cooperation between all parties on site which involves consulting workers before making health and safety decisions. This will ensure that the measures implemented to protect workers will be effective by building collaboration and trust. Involving workers would not only reap significant and novel inputs but would make sure the commitment and engagement of the workers to the measures introduced by the organization. In the new legislation, the client can no longer transfer the client’s liability to the client’s agents to avoid confusion on transfer of duties and to make sure clients will not be able to turn their backs on health and safety issues and transfer them to other duty holders which usually do not have the crucial information. It also requires that existing planning supervisors will be replaced by a new duty holder or coordinator whose main duty includes assisting the client in appointing competent workers, advising on the competency of other duty holders with regard to controlling work-related risks, coordinating design works and other construction preparation, liaising with principal contractor regarding design changes, notifying the Health and Safety Executive about the project, and updating files on health and safety. An important provision in the revised Approved Code of Practice or Acop is the guidelines on assessment of competence for either the individual or an organization. The guidelines are expected to significantly reduce bureaucracy through simplification of the process.
On equity and fairness, HSEIN recognizes the gender mix in the construction industry. Migrants and the disadvantaged will likely to work in construction but HSE does not differentiate them. The regulation will apply equally regardless of sex and citizenship. The regulation also covers atypical workers or the self-employed workers despite the relatively lower injury rates in this sector. Many people think that self-employed workers will not be covered by the law. However, they usually work under the control of others, hence should be treated as employees under the CMD 2007. On business sectors affected, the regulation will be applied to all sectors inasmuch as it is impossible to classify clients because everyone, individuals or organizations from any business sector is a potential construction client. On the cost to implementation of the regulation, HSEIN identified two cost sections which are the cost associated with the compliance that includes the familiarisation cost and the cost of improved compliance with the existing duties which covers the cost for additional training. Four main groups are required to familiarise with the regulation. They are the designers, contractors, coordinators, and clients. On cost savings, the regulation is expected to bring in savings due to productivity improvements. CMD 2007 is aligned with the initiatives to improve project management. It is also expected to bring in additional practical benefits to include client leadership, innovative ways, respect for people, sustainable development, and a clear benchmark on improvement measurement. The Demonstration also shows that project cost could be reduced by 6% with the proposed changes. On enforcement and sanctions, the regulations will be promulgated by HSE or the local authorities. Compliance is expected to be higher due to the simplicity of the regulation and most of the requirements already being met by clients. Designated inspectors will identify non-compliance by raising queries and conducting investigations. Penalties will be determined according to the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. On arrangements for monitoring and evaluation, HSE commissioned a research to evaluate the effectiveness of the regulation to take place five years after implementation which will encompass all aspects of the proposed changes.
To recapitulate the CDM 2007, highlighted the simplification of the regulation to improve its clarity making it easier to understand what is expected of the duty holders, the flexibility to fit the complexities of contractual agreements, making the focus on planning and management to minimise bureaucracy, strengthening coordination and cooperation, and simplification of competence assessments.
Attitudes to Health and Safety
The seriousness of the construction health and safety issues in Northern Ireland brought about legislations to reduce accidents in the construction industry. These legislations brought different responses from different sectors as outlined in the study conducted by the MORI Social Research Institute on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive -Northern Ireland. Relative to other risks, workplace and health safety in the workplace comes third among the citizen concerns, with road safety and food safety topping the list. The study also found out that employees in the construction are more concerned on their health and safety than those in the banking sector. Along with the other workplace issues, surveys showed that employers place more importance on health and safety than employees do. On the other hand, employees place more importance on job satisfaction, pay, and balanced lifestyle. The large businesses attached more importance on health and safety than the small businesses. Older employees also place more importance on health and safety more than the younger employees. At least 30% of the respondents strongly agree that health and safety regulations are the cornerstone of a civilised society.
The number one driver of workplace health and safety improvement is found to be due to common sense of the staff. The Health and Safety Executive enforcing health and safety law as one of the drivers of improvement come in third. Most of the employers who think that health and safety can be improved by HSE enforcing laws are those who have received a fair amount of training. Around 90% of the respondents also say that HSE has the responsibility for controlling risks in the workplace. This finding is an indication that employers and employees are not yet aware that it requires a concerted effort of all the sectors to achieve a dramatic reduction in accidents in the worksite, hence the need for further training in order for the health and safety responsibility to be embedded in the DNA of the organization. Citizens who have a positive view of the HSE agree that laws enforced by the institution will bring improved performance of health and safety in the workplace. On the other hand, those with the negative view of the HSE are less likely to agree on the effectivity of the regulations it implements. The study also found out that those concerned with the health and safety issues think that compensation claims have gone too far which means that work-related accidents have been rampant that it is becoming a burden in the form of company expenses. One in every seven respondents disagree that health and safety requirements bring benefits to their business. Older respondents are also less likely to believe that the company benefits from the health and safety requirements brought about by the implementation of the new regulation. About 56% of the employers believed that health and safety requirements shield them against unjustified claims. Those who are aware of the HSE are more likely to agree that compliance with health and safety requirements defend the organisations from unjustified claims. Those in the small and medium-sized businesses, however, perceived that health and safety regulations are additional burden due to additional administrative, training, and familiarisation costs. This perception could be changed through education about the cost and qualitative savings that the organization is will recoup should they comply with the provisions in the health and safety regulations. There is also an equal proportion of respondents who say that implementing health and safety regulations is expensive. Also, half of the respondents believe that these rules are overly bureaucratic.
Accidents in the construction industry is a hugely important issue hence under existing laws, employers have the duty to consult with their employees on matters concerning their health and safety. Health and safety lies on the shoulders of the employee as well as the employers. Companies are spending more money on safety in terms of claims, fines or lost man hours; workers suffer due to reduced income, suffering from illnesses, and post-traumatic disorders that regulations have been revised and implemented to reduce construction related accidents. Zero- accident goal might be too lofty a goal, but with the attention centered into the issue right now, it might not be too far to achieve. One of the initiatives to improve the current health and safety performance in Northern Ireland is the revised CMD of 2007. In implementing the CMD 2007 it is imperative to involve the employees. This would help to identify areas where efforts should be directed to facilitate more effective measures that will prevent occurrence of accidents. With the worker engagement, it is expected that staff commitment to the health and safety requirements would be further improved. It will also make both employers and employees more responsive which will result to improved health and safety performance. With this, improved business performance will follow. Providing appropriate training to workers especially before entering the worksite is also a key factor in reducing the occurrences of accidents in worksites. CMD 2007 highlighted five major changes as opposed to the previous CMD.
The changes in the regulation to address the changes in practices and needs of the construction industry includes simplifying the regulations to provide clarity, maximizing flexibility to fit the vast needs of the construction sector, focusing on planning rather than paper work, strengthening cooperation and coordination, and simplifying assessment of competence to reduce bureaucracy. Implementing CMD 2007 is perceived to be an additional burden due to additional cost to include familiarisation, training, and administrative cost. However, HSE study showed that the benefits derived from the implementation of regulation in the form of reduced claims, improved productivity, and reduced insurance premiums outweigh the initial cost that will be incurred. To make sure that the regulations will be effective, sanctions should be imposed to those who fail to follow it. Demanding a higher health and safety standards to radically improve the industry’s safety records calls for a positive partnership between employers, employees, and the government. Employers and the Health and Safety Executive of Northern Ireland must work together to promote the culture of health and safety in the workplace than simply implementing aggressive regulations.