Injuries are a common symptom of working on construction sites, with even the toughest rules and regulations on health and safety failing to completely eliminate the likelihood of accidents occurring. This is even more pertinent at a time when the market is growing and spending could top $8 trillion by 2030.
There are different approaches to this issue in various jurisdictions around the world, which means that workers can expect to receive different levels of protection from injury and compensation in the event of an incident that leaves them physically compromised.
Taking a look at the types of regulations and legislative measures that are in place to keep construction site employees out of harm’s way, or give them recourse to take action in the case of negligence on the part of a third party, is sensible for aspiring legal professionals everywhere. Having an understanding of regional variations in the law can lead to positive changes and theoretical breakthroughs that are not beholden to borders and boundaries.
Working At Height
There are a lot of risks associated with working at height, yet almost every construction project requires this type of scenario to be fulfilled by employees. Hazards come in various forms, with the use of lifting equipment like a scaffold hoist requiring careful use to avoid building materials becoming dislodged, while workers themselves need to avoid falls through the use of proper safety kit.
Falls are perhaps the greatest issue that needs tackling, with estimates suggesting that two fifths of fatalities on construction sites in the US are the result of this. In the majority of these cases, the workers in question had not been given access to a fall arrest system that would have saved them. A quarter did have such equipment to hand, but failed to use it.
In the UK, levels of accidents which occur due to falls are much lower, sitting at 28 per cent. This suggests that there is a regulatory discrepancy between these two countries which is worth scrutinising.
Britain’s Health and Safety Executive outlines clear guidelines on the best practices that should be followed by anyone working at height, whether on construction sites or in other places of employment.
In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) operates according to the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. This is an ac that was introduced all the way back in 1970, which suggests that it could be due for an update to modernise its inclusions. The OSHA also has a fall prevention campaign targeting the construction industry, which aims to eliminate the preventable deaths associated with working at height. It offers training materials for employers to use, along with extensive regulations and standards which apply to construction specifically.
What makes a lot of these documents interesting is that in many cases they are not binding rules governing the use of safety equipment, but rather non-mandatory guidelines. This leaves room for mistakes to be made, advice to be ignored and injuries to occur on-site.
Elsewhere in the world, working at height can be even more perilous; 1752 people were killed in accidents on-site in China in 2017, a year on year increase of 1.4 per cent. Observers claim that this is not due to a lack of regulations on safety, but rather a general failure amongst contractors to stick to the rules that are in place. There is even a comprehensive online map which charts the accidents that occur across China and helps to raise awareness about this issue.
Diseases in Construction Sites
An oft overlooked aspect of safety on construction sites because of its lack of immediate impact, disease is nevertheless an important consideration in the context of this type of workplace in particular. Construction workers are often exposed to hazardous materials that could result in long term health issues being developed if they are not handled in a suitable way.
For centuries, manual labourers were likely to suffer some form of ill health related to their occupation. Even as recently as the early 20th century, the use of substances which were not known to be dangerous at the time led to scandals further down the line. The use of radium to paint glow in the dark clock faces was widespread until the condition of ‘radium jaw’ was uncovered.
Asbestos remains a pertinent issue in construction, accounting for 20 per cent of all lung-related diseases developed in the UK to this day. While there has been a downward trend since the turn of the millennium, this reduction in cases has hit a plateau in the past decade, which pinpoints a need for more action on this issue.
In the US a separate body to the aforementioned OSHA oversees disease, with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) falling within the remit of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lung-related issues are similarly commonplace here, but skin diseases caused by irritants or via allergic reactions are also prevalent.
Part of the problem with tracking and monitoring rates of disease caused by working in construction is that it relies both on the sufferer reporting the ailment in good time, and on the physicians correctly assessing the root of the problem as stemming from their place of employment, rather than some outside factor.
This is helped by the fact that many countries require businesses to report injuries and diseases that occur on-site. In the UK this is governed by RIDDOR, a regulation that was introduced in 1995. The OSHA takes charge of this process in the US, although plenty of states have their own bodies that are responsible for safety and health, which can muddy the waters from a jurisdictional point of view. An overview of the current reporting requirements can be found on the OSHA website.
Western nations offer workers a variety of options in the event that they fall victim to an accident at work, with established regulatory and legal frameworks allowing them to claim compensation, seek restitution and address any other concerns that they might have in court.
Of course a construction worker’s ability to make a claim if they are injured on-site will be dependent on their ability to prove that the cause of the injury was not down to their own negligence or failure to follow reasonable safety precautions. It is mostly down to whether an injury or disease is avoidable or not; if an employer puts an employee in a dangerous environment without adequate protection or training, they are liable to face the brunt of any subsequent legal action. If a worker flouts the rules without being put under pressure to do so, they are responsible for the consequences.
Trade unions can provide the legal advice, protection and support that workers who are injured in the fulfilment of their duties on a construction site will need. Those who are not union members will require the assistance of a lawyer who specialises in personal and workplace injuries, for obvious reasons.
On a global scale, the International Labour Organisation is the body which overseas and campaigns for safety and equality of workers. Its own statistics suggest that diseases picked up in the workplace result in 2.78 million deaths annually, as well as hundreds of millions of injuries on top of this. This is not just a burden in terms of its emotional impact on the individuals involved and their families, but also an economic issue that costs almost 4 per cent of the world’s GDP to deal with.
When it comes to worker’s rights, there are regular international investigations into how well different countries stand up for employees, not just in construction but across all industries and sectors. The International Trade Union Confederation puts together a comprehensive ranking system which delves into this often murky topic.
Nations like Qatar have been pilloried for their poor performance recently, with the large number of construction worker deaths associated with the building work that is going on ahead of the World Cup in 2022 attracting a lot of attention. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are in a similar position, in part because they are predominantly reliant on migrant workers, meaning that undocumented labourers are often used and thus statistics on injuries and rights for compensation are hard to come by.
Leading by example and ensuring that construction can be carried out safely without the risk of injury, while providing the means for workers to seek justice if they are hurt in the line of duty through no fault of their own, is clearly important. The complexities of the regulations and laws that encircle and enshrine safety and health can be daunting, both from an outsider’s perspective and to the professionals who have to navigate their intricacies. In the face of this, diligent work and untrammelled compassion are also key to achieving the necessary improvements that should be made in every nation.