The 'curse of Canary Wharf' claims another life

Barrie Clement,Labour Editor
Thursday 20 February 2014 04:54

The death of yet another worker in London's Docklands, Europe's largest construction site, has fuelled the perception that this is also the continent's most dangerous workplace.

The tragedy yet again calls into question the safety of the site it being the sixth death among men working on the UK's most prestigious building project which incorporates the offices of some of the world's biggest financial houses.

In Wednesday's accident, an electrician was crushed to death when a transformer weighing up to two tonnes toppled over. The 44-year-old man, who was working in a basement of a new Waitrose store, was pronounced dead after emergency services pulled the equipment off him. His employers were a subcontractor based in Northern Ireland,

Of the 295 fatalities in Britain's workplaces over the past 12 months, 106 took place in the construction sector, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

The death this week at Canary Wharf, where more than 5,000 people are working on five buildings, appears to many in the building trade to be the latest example of the "curse of Canary Wharf". But the site has been the focus of several safety concerns.

In March 1998, Canary Wharf Contractors, a subsidiary of the Canary Wharf Group, was found guilty of breaking health and safety laws after a 32-year-old steel erector fell to his death while working on a skyscraper now occupied by Citigroup bank.

In May last year three men were killed on the "twin" tower of the Citigroup building when a crane they were attempting to extend ripped in half, plunging 400ft to the ground and narrowly missing a family sitting nearby. Fifteen months later the Health and Safety Executive is still investigating the deaths of the crane driver, Peter Clark, and the steel erectors, Martin Burgess and Michael Whittard, which took place during construction of the office now occupied by HSBC bank.

Then last December a diver died while working underwater on a new road at the Wharf.

Jerry Swain, regional organiser of the construction union, Ucatt, said that while construction groups working on the site spent significant sums of money on safety, the message did not seem to get through to those who did the work. "One key component is missing. Very little money is spent on educating workers in safety."

Although all staff are given a one-hour induction course, he said workers needed to be taken off the site for at least one day a year to learn about the potential dangers of the construction industry.

A site inspector at the Health and Safety Executive said the amount of building being undertaken at the Wharf was on a par with a fairly large town and much of the work was "high risk in a high-risk sector".

He said one of the problems was that subcontractors often signed statements guaranteeing work to be performed in a specified manner, "but then they go away and do something different". He said it was an industry-wide problem.

"There is a risk acceptance culture. A lot of training in the industry is done by watching older colleagues. That's how bad habits are passed on. Sometimes people do not realise what they are doing is dangerous. On other occasions they know it's dangerous, but they still do it because it's cheaper and quicker."

He believed the key to improving safety on construction sites was greater supervision of sub-contractors by the principal companies involved.

Sean Barry, of the magazine Construction News, said: "The site at Canary Wharf is not badly run, but clearly there is a lot of pressure to get work finished. And there are penalty clauses for the late running of projects."

Graham Moon, head of health and safety at the Canary Wharf Group, saidthe number of deaths were "a mortifying set of statistics" and it was a "tragic state of affairs". But he added that the rate of non-fatal injuries at Canary Wharf was substantially lower than for the industry in general.

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