Comment – When death is too familiar

Did you know that modern cruise ships have on board a temporary morgue? It is not advertised in the glossy brochures advertising 5-star dining on the ocean wave whilst journeying effortlessly to far-flung destinations. And it is located way below decks. But trust me, they do.

It makes sense, I guess. Given the average age of the cruise enthusiast, the sheer volume of people on board, and the fact that – in a typical year – each ship will be at sea virtually non-stop, chances are someone is going to die on board at some point. And lets face it, no-one wants to share cocktails in the Vista Bar with the rapidly decomposing corpse of Great Aunt Ethel, do they?

I am recounting this piece of trivia because it illustrates and encapsulates the inevitability of death on an ocean liner. An inevitability that, sadly, is echoed in the combined construction and demolition industries.

Each year, when the Health and Safety Executive announces its annual accident and fatality statistics, there is no collective anticipation that we might have made it through an entire year without killing or maiming anyone. There is no universal rending of garments or clutching of chests as the latest death toll is announced. In fact, outside the companies directly impacted by a site fatality, the annual stats are received and dismissed in roughly the time it takes to send an email to the recycle bin.

Think I am over-stating? I have this morning received my daily email from industry news portal, Construction Enquirer; a publication for which – incidentally – I have a huge respect. That email carries the news that construction deaths have risen from last year’s 31 to this year’s 40. It appears as the fourth out of six stories; just below the news that site canteens are now allowed to reopen under revised social distancing guidelines.

Just how skewed is your industry view and general humanity when the death of 40 workers is given less prominence than the availability of a bacon sandwich?

That would be bad enough. But 40 deaths doesn’t even begin to tell the story. Those figures make no allowance for the fact that the year in which these figures were recorded was likely curtailed by the COVID-19 lockdown. The stats also separate out the figures for people killed by Mesothelioma (2,446), a good many of which are likely to have been exposed to asbestos in a construction or demolition setting. There is no mention either of the roughly one construction worker that takes his own life each year.

Surely by now we are not naïve enough to look at an official figure of 40 site deaths and think “well, at least it’s less than one per week” when it quite plainly isn’t? Truth is, if the Mesothelioma and suicide figures were more fully interrogated and included, the chances are that the combined construction and demolition industries is actually responsible – directly or otherwise – for more than two industry deaths each working day.

It would be nice (if misplaced) to think that the COVID-19 lockdown might have a positive impact on figures ending 1 April 2021 (although the links between financial and career uncertainty and suicide might actually make the overall figures worse). But when you’re pinning your hopes on a global pandemic to reduce the number of site fatalities, you really need to take a long, hard look at yourselves.

All of which – bizarrely – brings me round to a 1990s action film reference that some may recall. In the movie Broken Arrow, John Travolta steals a nuclear missile, like one does. The titular term “Broken Arrow” is explained as “a Class 4 Strategic Theatre Emergency. It’s what we call it when we lose a nuclear weapon.” Upon hearing this, a character responds with the immortal line: “I don’t know what’s scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there’s actually a term for it.”

The term Site Deaths is our Broken Arrow. It is both scary and sad that it happens. It is worse that it happens with such frequency that there’s actually a term for it.