Workers Memorial Day - Irish Times

29 Apr 2019

Workers Memorial Day

Deaths in the workplace have decreased significantly

Safety concerns remain over influx of inexperienced workers in the construction sector

Colin Gleeson Irish Times

Some 15.3% of new recruits in construction experienced a work-related injury in 2017, compared with an average among other groups of 4-5%. Photograph: Getty Images

 The number of fatal accidents in the workplace continued to decrease in 2018, but safety chiefs are concerned over an influx of inexperienced workers in the construction sector.

Workers Memorial Day took place on Sunday. It is held each year to raise awareness and remember those who have died while working. This year’s theme was women’s contribution to safety at work.

The latest figures show there were 37 deaths in the workplace last year, compared with 47 the year before; 46 in 2016; 56 in 2015, and 55 in 2014. By contrast, the boom years of 2002-2007 – when construction was rife – averaged 62 fatal accidents each year.

“This is a positive development,” says the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). “Nevertheless, the deaths of 41 workers and six members of the public, including one child [in 2017] suggest that work-related fatalities are still a major concern.”

The agriculture, forestry and fishing sector accounted for more than half of all fatal accidents in 2017, with 25 worker deaths and one additional non-worker death. In 2016 the same sector saw 25 fatalities in total.

Five worker fatalities occurred in the public administration and defence sector, while there were four worker fatalities in the construction sector, as well as two fatalities to non-workers.

Frank Vaughan of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) points to agriculture and construction as the most dangerous sectors to work in – but for different reasons.

“In agriculture we have people in their mid-70s continuing to work in a dangerous environment. In construction it has always been a dangerous sector, but it’s even more dangerous when you’ve got people who are newly entering into the sector who don’t have the experience.”

He says there has been a resurgence of construction over the last few years, and more and more young people and less experienced people are coming in.

“There is a shortage of construction workers. In the past we had large construction companies with significant numbers of employees and really good programmes and training for safety. But now the whole sector has changed in terms of the prevalence of subcontractors, which in many cases is leading to a slip in standards.”

Mr Vaughan’s view is backed by the HSA, which says 15.3 per cent of new recruits in construction experienced a work-related injury in 2017 compared with an average among other groups of 4-5 per cent.

Construction Industry Federation spokesman Shane Dempsey says the “vast majority” of fatalities in the sector occur in the sole-trader segment, while a “large proportion” of accidents occur amongst SMEs.

“Construction sites of the larger players in the industry are at the safest in the history of the industry. This has been brought about by a huge investment by companies in site safety. The most common types of accident are falls.”

Mr Dempsey says two areas are increasingly going to play a role in safety. “One is technology, where liminal, sensor and bio-marker technology can provide up to the moment data to companies highlighting potential issues before they occur.

“Augmented and virtual reality will make the onboarding and safety awareness training of new employees much more effective. Employees can get used to spotting hazards in the safety of a virtual construction site.”

As the technology develops and global level data is accumulated, augmented reality could feed information, warnings, even tactile warning signs to employees who are unaware of potential hazards.

“Some companies are developing technology that could act as a ‘spidey’ sense for employees,” he says. “The other area is behavioural science, where the full gamut of cognitive biases are being applied to safety regulation and training.”

Among fatal accidents in 2017 the most common trigger was the loss of control of a means of transport or handling equipment, which accounted for 21 (44.7 per cent) fatalities. It was also the most common trigger in 2016, according to the HSA.

Other triggers included falls from a height (five); people entering dangerous areas (four); and the loss of control of an animal (four).

While Mr Vaughan says most of the issues encountered by ICTU in recent years have involved “things like slips, trips and falls”, illnesses related to “psychosocial issues” have become more prominent.

“This is to do with mental health issues, mostly associated with stress or bullying. Now sometimes it also has to do with physical violence. We’ve had nurses in A&E assaulted, for example. We’ve had teachers in schools assaulted, sometimes by parents.

“But there has also been an increase in the reporting of stress in the workplace in terms of the overall impact of illness both to people’s personal lives and from an employer point of view to their bottom line.”

There were 9,143 non-fatal injuries reported to the HSA in 2017, 95 per cent of which involved workers.

Photograph: Frank Vaughan with Minister of State Pat Breen and General Secretary Patricia King.