It is shameful that, in the modern world of demolition and construction, men and women are still injured, maimed and killed in the line of duty. It is shameful that such incidents take years to investigate and come to justice. It is shameful that we continue to employ methods that have been found to be hazardous or downright dangerous.
But all of these pale into relative insignificance in the face of the sector’s acknowledgement of an industry-wide mental health epidemic and its subsequent failure to act.
If you think that appointing mental health first aiders and posting a carefully crafted message on social media to mark mental health awareness week means you have addressed the mental health issue, try telling that to the parent, widow or orphan of one of the 500+ working men that take their own lives within the industry each year. I am sure they will find your #mentalhealthaware message deeply reassuring and of great comfort.
The Health and Safety Executive will run entire campaigns to address the hazard of slips and trips that might result in a handful of twisted ankles each year. The industry will spend days, weeks and months devising methods that do not require men and women to work at height, just in case they become one of the dozen or so killed in falls each year. One Tier 1 contractor carried out an intensive study to ascertain if flat boot laces were safer than round boot laces (they are, apparently). And yet, the collective response to a problem that is costing the lives of more than 500 young men each year is a level of virtue signalling that would make even the most “woke” among us seem insensitive and out of touch.
I have said what I am about to say so many times now that I am actually running low on metaphors and analogies with which to explain myself. But here goes anyway.
In the middle of your demolition or construction site, there is an open manhole. If someone were to fall into that manhole, they would be seriously injured. They might even die. Faced with this scenario, do you: (a) cover the manhole; or (b) pop onto LinkedIn and proclaim your manhole awareness?
It is now more than five years since the sheer magnitude of the construction mental health crisis was recognised. At the time, the industry was flying high on a wave of full order books and sector-wide optimism. We are now approaching a period in which full order books may well be replaced by a downturn in demand; when optimism will be replaced by uncertainty and pessimism.
The industry had a suicide rate that was three times the national average then. It is almost four times the national average now. Just how high will that figure climb when lay-offs, redundancies and work shortages really begin to bite. And how high do those figures have to climb before the industry switches awareness to action?