Two entirely unconnected news stories last week threw into sharp relief the ongoing and inexcusable disparity in the industry’s attitude to health and safety and its willingness to avoid a minor risk whilst allowing a greater risk to flourish
On Thursday last week, we reported that the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) had issued a Safety Alert for a chainsaw disc attachment that has been incorrectly sold for use with angle grinders.
This was not guidance. This was a genuine, Government-backed safety warning.
The safety regulator said these attachments are not designed to be used together and are likely to cause loss of control that could result in serious injury or even fatality.
Now, for reasons that will become clear, the operative word in that previous sentence is “could”. Because, even though that safety warning was carried across a multitude of industry news portals and even though it made one or two national newspapers, as far as I can ascertain no-one has actually been killed by an angle grinder chainsaw.
Now contrast that with the news just 24 hours later that construction sector suicide is on the rise. This story too was picked up by industry news portals. Chances are, it might make it into one or two newspapers if it’s a thin day for news; if there’s not a statue being unveiled somewhere; or if a stupid celebrity does or says something stupid.
But the way in which this news was delivered and received is telling.
The angle grinder safety notice felt – metaphorically – like someone had slapped a piece of paper onto my desk with such force that it would have spilled my coffee. This warning was delivered in a way that demanded a response.
The news of the rise in suicide, on the other hand felt – metaphorically – like someone had copied me in on an unimportant email that I might like to read, you know, if I had time.
The message, is clear. Angle grinder potential hazard – Stop what you’re doing and pay attention. Industry suicides on the rise and actual deaths are occurring at a rate of more than one per day. How sad. Now, what’s next on the agenda.
Or, to put it another way, something that might, MIGHT cause hard within the sector is cause for an immediate change in working practices while something that actually DOES cause deaths within the industry is apparently best dealt with through increased awareness.
Like everyone else, I am aware of the potential dangers of smoking. Yet many people smoke. I am aware of the risks from alcohol, drugs, dangerous driving and skydiving. Yet people still do all these things.
Being aware of a risk is no the same as eliminating it. And while the spread of mental health awareness across the industry is laudable, it has not made the mental health issues among its workers vanish miraculously.
Given that we all know the primary causes of suicide among construction workers – loneliness and separation from support networks, financial concerns, fears over job security – what we need right now is not awareness. It is action. It is a fundamental change in working practices and employment that ensure that men (and it is mainly men) get home to their loved ones regularly; that payment of wages is assured rather than uncertain; and that permanent employment means just that and not permanent until this project is over.
There has never been a more important and critical time to act on this. As the new report from the Lighthouse Club charity makes clear, the findings are pre-pandemic. The latest set of figures that will include details of those that took their own life amidst the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 are not due out until October.
Sadly, tragically, I fear they are going to be much, much worse.