Socialist Worker

Fourteen dead. Nothing said

Fourteen construction workers were killed in the course of duty during April and May. Yet there was no outcry in the national press. Helen Shooter investigates

Issue No. 1853

IF 14 police officers had been killed during their course of duty the national press would have created an outrage. Their pictures would have been on every front page. We would know their faces, names, and ages. We would know the grief and heartache of their families and colleagues.

Some 14 building workers died in the six weeks from 31 March on construction sites round Britain. But there has been silence in the press. We have not been told their names or how horrifically they died. Where were the pictures of 65 year old Michael Davis? He died just days before his retirement after he fell from a roof in south London. Or what about Daniel Dennis? He was just 17 years old when he died after a fall in North Wales.

Seventy nine construction workers were killed at work last year. That is more than the number of police officers killed in the line of duty over the past 30 years. In 2001, 106 construction workers lost their lives - the highest for ten years. John Doran, a 54 year old labourer, died last month after being buried under six feet of mud and earth on a site in Weston-super-Mare. The father of three left Ireland over 30 years ago in search of a job and the hope of a decent life in Britain, like many thousands of Irish immigrants.

He found work as a labourer. Building workers are forced to grab any chance to work, in an insecure industry. They often suffer long hours, in rotten conditions, employed by a subcontractor. Behind it all is a giant corporation profiting from a multimillion pound contract.

Many companies try to get away with the bare minimum of safety and training. Yet it is virtually impossible to convict a company of manslaughter after employees are killed at work.

Under pressure from unions and backbenchers New Labour announced last week that it plans to introduce a tough new 'corporate killing' offence. They said this six years ago in their manifesto. Bosses have been kicking and screaming against this ever since, and are pressuring New Labour to water down the legislation.

But the bosses have little to fear from the new legislation. Even if they are found guilty of corporate killing, judges will not have the power to imprison or even disqualify an individual boss.

George Stewart knows all about the high cost of lack of safety on sites. His son Paul died along with three other workers when they fell from a gantry on the M5 Avonmouth Bridge near Bristol in September 1999. Paul, and two others, were employed by Kvaerner Cleveland Bridge UK Ltd, part of the giant Kvaerner multinational.

'Profits come before lives,' George Stewart told Socialist Worker. 'The cavalier attitude cost four men their lives. They didn't even know they were in danger. None of the four were trained to work on a gantry. I've worked in the industry for 45 years and when I read what happened on that site, it was horrendous. It wasn't the first incident.

There had been a series leading up to it, including a partial collapse of the gantry. It was Paul's first job. He had just finished his apprenticeship, training as a welder. The day of his death I was in Somerset on a job. My wife rang to say she had seen on the news a gantry had fallen and Paul had not rung to say he was ok. So I rang up and they said Paul had been killed.

It was a month before his son Jamie's first birthday. It's ruined us - the accident and the stress of fighting for three and a half years to try to get justice. We had already buried our other son at 18 after a car accident. My wife is not the same woman. She is angry at the whole world. It's been a long hard fight to get an inquest which is set for July. I'm hoping for an unlawful killing verdict.

The fine the companies got is a pittance after pleading guilty to breaching health and safety regulation. They got £150 million for the contract and then a £1 million fine between them. That's not a punishment at all. Even the compensation that was awarded isn't much when you divide £1.3 million between four families. The government has promised since 1997 that it would come up with corporate manslaughter legislation. Even now they won't give us a date when it will become law. It's just a promise of a promise of a promise. Nothing's getting done.'

Tragedies when no inspector calls

'OVER HALF of fatalities on construction sites are falls from a height. Preventative measures are straightforward and known to the industry. Out of the other 50 percent of deaths, half of them are caused by accidents with vehicles when someone is run over. So there are two main killers. The problem is the lines of responsibility on a site are totally confused.

'You have a main contractor in overall charge who subcontracts out. Then these will subcontract out further. Then other labour can be supplied by an agency. The main pressures are on time and money. If a company has cut to the bone in terms of money and is rushing to complete by a deadline, that pressure can lead to corners being cut.

'The culture is not 'Is it safe?' It's 'have we done the bare minimum?' There are around 130 inspectors for construction sites in Britain. They have to do site inspections and investigate accidents.

'So few inspectors means only about 6 percent of all accidents reported are investigated. This means there is less time to do the preventative work that could help stop the accidents in the first place.'
Health and Safety Executive inspector

Died days before retiring when he fell from a roof in Morden, south London.

Fell through a roof light in North Wales.

10 April - JOHN DORAN
Died after a trench collapsed while working for MJ O'Connor Ltd in Gwent.

Died following a scaffold tower collapse at Cossington, Leicestershire.

Killed when he was hit by a chimney flue in Northwood, near Hillingdon.

Killed when thrown from a dumper truck in Salisbury.

29 April - JACK TOWEY
Run over by a skip lorry at a construction works on the A13, Barking, Essex.

Died after a fall at the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in Grays, Essex.

Run over while working for MJ Gleeson at Leeds University.

Killed while delivering plasterboard to a site in Caldercott, South Wales.

Killed when a crane fell on him near the A50 in Staffordshire.

Crushed to death by a forklift truck while working for Wellwood Roofing Services at the Building Research Establishment, Bedford.

Died after a fall on a site in Leominster, Herefordshire.

Electrocuted while working for Daubney Services Ltd at Millburn Gate House, Durham.

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Article information

Sat 31 May 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1853
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