Johann Hari: Death on the building site: an unseen tragedy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

While the Labour conference leaves the seaside with a confident strut, an untold, unnoticed national scandal is picking off labour-with-a-small-l. Every year now, 77 or more people are killed on Britain's construction sites - with a massive rise of 30 per cent in 2006 alone. It's even worse in house-building: the number of people who had their heads or bodies crushed in that sector doubled last year. And it is all, alas, because of the policies of Labour.

For the past week, I have been wading through the grief these workplace disasters cause. Patrick O'Sullivan was a 54-year old brickie who played in a band at weekends. His son John told me on Tuesday, "He was fit as a fiddle, always really active. He was more lively than a lot of guys in their twenties, and he was the sort of bloke who always kept people's spirits up." On 15 January 2004, Pat went to work building the new Wembley Stadium. A crane that was supposed to be watched by two banksmen – the family claim there was only one – sent a vast wooden platform crashing down on to Pat. He bled to death before the air ambulance arrived. The inquest has not even begun yet. "The experience has crushed my family too," John says, "just destroyed us."

Kieron Deeney was a 25-year old Irish guy who worked with Pat. At his funeral, his girlfriend Jennifer whispered to him: "What would I do if it was you?" Last summer, it was. Kieron was fresh from getting married when he was sent to work on one of the glistening towers of Docklands. As part of his work, he had to walk along a piece of wood covering a liftshaft – but the inquest later heard it was rotten. He fell 100 feet and died instantly. Jennifer says, "I lost my life too that day. I was just married, we were so happy. I lost everything."

And it is not just construction workers who are dying in this surge in accidents. A year ago today, a 23-year-old called Michael Alexa – who had just become a dad for the first time – was outside his mum's house in Battersea changing a tyre on his car when there was a strange sound from the building site next to him. His mother heard it too, and, she tells me, "I immediately ran outside, like somebody was calling to me. I saw Michael trapped under a crane. There was nothing I could do... It has ruined my life. I have been given a life sentence. All his grandparents are alive, and he is gone."

Why are deaths at work happening so much more frequently than before in Britain? There is one big reason: a campaign by the right-wing press and big business that has bullied the Government into whittling down the Health and Safety Inspectorate to dangerously threadbare levels.

For over a decade now, the right has inventing stories that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a gang of "clipboard wielding nannies", imposing absurd rules like banning children from playing conkers. The BBC's John Humphrys has joined in this parade, attacking the "'Elf and Safety Nazis". In reality, far from faffing about with conkers, the HSE is unable to investigate even instances where workers have their legs amputated following chronic negligence. A shortage of resources was the reason for not investigating a major injury – a lost leg, a smashed face, a paralysed father – in 188 cases in 2004/5, 255 cases in 2005/6, and 307 cases in 2006/7.

Yet the Government bought into the lies, and saw the HSE as an easy service to cut swingeingly. The HSE has already lost 250 jobs, and they will have to cut a further 300 jobs by 2008. After her husband Kieran died, Jennifer decided to go and work for the HSE herself, to prevent more deaths like his. She was shocked to find "there just aren't enough inspectors to do the jobs. There are huge abuses going on that they can't look into. It's not their fault, it's the Government's."

The plummeting number of HSE inspectors has led to a plummeting number of prosecutions for workplace negligence. In 1998, 42 per cent of builders' deaths ended in a conviction for the company. Today, it is just 11 per cent. This means that the risk of getting caught and punished has fallen for companies – so they are, entirely predictably, taking more risks. As Alan Ritchie, general secretary of the construction workers' trade union UCATT, explains: "It's not rocket science to realise that if you implement a rigorous inspection and enforcement regime, sites will become safer. If you sit back and do nothing, deaths will increase."

Even when there is a conviction, the punishments are often an insult to the dead. Dozens of companies have been fined just £1,000 for contributing to the death of one of their workers. Compare that to the fine this summer for British Airways of £121.5m for committing financial irregularities. Gordon Brown has been talking this week about the "signals" sent out by alcohol and cannabis laws. But what signal does this send – rip off rich people and we'll fiscally horse-whip you, kill poor people and we'll take your spare change?

There are other ways in which the laws protecting construction workers are bizarrely ineffective. Under the current government guidelines, the HSE has to give construction sites a long warning before they come to inspect. John O'Sullivan says: "It means that the day before the inspectors come, the managers on a site go around sorting everything out, and the inspection is worthless. The food hygiene inspectors don't ring up dodgy restaurants a week before they come so they've got a chance to scrub out their kitchens, do they?"

The Irish government has adopted the opposite approach to Labour's – with striking results. They doubled the number of health and safety inspectors, and within a year the number of construction deaths fell by 50 per cent. Scores of Pats and Kierons and Michaels have been saved.

Peter Hain, the new Work and Pensions Secretary, has convened a safety forum on this issue, and pledged to act. But will he introduce the only measure that will really make a difference: employ more Health and Safety Inspectors and give them the power to carry out unexpected on-the-spot checks? He will have to face down the shrieking of the fake populists on the right who claim to defend The Ordinary Bloke while they actually peddle the propaganda of their super-rich employers – something the Government has lethally failed to do so far.

Kieron's widow, Jennifer, knows what a cruel joke these HSE-bashing stories really are. She said to me as we parted: "If we had 70 doctors or 70 nurses dying in work every year, we'd do something about it. It would be a national scandal. But they seem to think these men don't count because they work in construction. Well, they deserve to go to work and come home safe, like everyone else."