The first international speaker at this weekend’s Building Safety conference in Canberra, Australia was Rita Donahy, author of the One Death Is Too Many report into the UK’s construction industry safety performance, and a member of the House of Lords.
Donahy stressed that workplace safety is, and should be, a social issue and not treated as a special case.
Donahy mentioned that occupational health was not part of her remit for the report but notes that 20 electricians and plumbers die every week in the UK from asbestos-related diseases. Silicosis is also a problem gaining insufficient attention. Noting this she also mentioned that 50% of all construction fatalities relate to falls.
The UK Government accepted most of Donahy’s recommendations but it rejected several. Donahy had recommended a positive OHS duty for company directors, a legislative requirement in place in most Australian jurisdictions. Due diligence on OHS is proving to be a major motivator for change in Australia.
Donaghy acknowledged that current Government’s political and economic stance has restricted the application of many of here recommendations. A legislative positive duty on directors would have existed regardless of changed economic conditions and it would have been interesting to see if company directors withdrew on their OHS duties on economic grounds. But then with an inspectorate that has endured substantial budget cuts the risk of being found out would have been reduced so the gamble may have been worth it.
Donahy recommended that Gangmaster laws be extended to the construction industry in order to reduce, or remove, the exploitation of migrant workers. The Gangmaster laws were introduced after 23 cocklepickers died in Morecombe Bay in 2004. (SafetyAtWorkBlog reported briefly on this in 2009 with a fuller, earlier article in the safetyATWork magazine) The UK’s Health and Safety Executive determined such legal challenges were not warranted.
Several other points by Donahy deserved greater attention but she covered a lot of OHS Ground. One was that she could find no direct relationship between the level of OHS inspections and workplace fatalities. This cuts across the assertions of some safety advocates but could emphasise the significance of the responsibility and accountability of business owners and that priority should be given to educating this sector of business management.
However, this should not be left to the activities of OHS consultants. Donahy acknowledges that through the “goldplating” by consultants, OHS is being misperceived as dominated by documentation. She emphasised that hazard identification and control has a more direct benefit to workers than creating lever arch folders of OHS procedures that few read and even fewer understand.
SafetyAtWorkBlog had the opportunity to ask at the conference about the UK media’s promotion of health and safety as a joke. She said that this was primarily limited to the conservative media but said that such an abuse of OHS was “insidious” in its devaluing effect on an important social and workplace activity.
Donahy was a suitable keynote for the conference as she was a plain speaker from a position of influence. This influence is ongoing as she was returning to London for a debate in the House of Lords on mesothelioma. Her report and findings are a useful comparison to the Getting Home Safely report produced by Lynette Briggs and Mark McCabe in Australia recently.