no embargo -4 March 2009 ( Back to news releases)
FACK Statement after meeting with Rita Donaghy Chair of DWP Inquiry into the underlying causes of deaths in the construction industry on Monday 2nd March 2009 (1)
Representatives of FACK whose family members have been killed in construction incidents, along with the Hazards Campaign and Battersea Crane Disaster Action Group, were invited to talk to Rita Donaghy in London and had a productive two and half hour meeting with her (2).
Rita explained the Inquiry process and the tight time table - her report must be delivered in April – which she has accepted as if she recommends legislative changes, then there is time for the government to bring this forward before the next election. Rita then listened to the families’ accounts of the deaths of their family members and their views about the underlying causes on site, within the company, within the current law and enforcement framework and also the effect of the wider political and public view of workplace health and safety.
After the meeting Linda Whelan, founder member of FACK said:
‘We were pleased to be invited to meet Rita and that she considers it essential to listen to us, we who bear the real burden of poor health and safety: workers and the families of those killed. We found Rita, open, sympathetic and interested in what we had to say. We sincerely hope that she accepts our pleas for major changes in law and enforcement to effect the necessary massive cultural and behavioural change in construction managers and employer towards site safety. This change needs to be equivalent to that achieved over drink driving and dangerous driving which have been criminalised by strict enforcement of laws backed up by public information and awareness campaigns, and the numbers killed have declined. We want directors to be directly legally responsible for the H&S on their sites and if it goes wrong to be held accountable in court and penalised by prison sentences which reflect the highest level of societal disapproval. We don’t want this for vengeance but for justice, accountability, equality and most of all to create a credible deterrent effect because we want to stop more totally avoidable and needless deaths. We can’t bring back our own sons but we are fighting hard to stop others suffering the same tragedies. We feel that eight years after John Prescott told the construction industry to clean up its act voluntarily or face stronger action it must be clear by now that voluntarism and exhortation to behave better doesn’t work and compulsion is essential. We hope that Rita’s inquiry report will finally come up with something stronger than lip-service, or more of the same with a bit of tweaking which we would feel was re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, an utter betrayal of our sons, all those killed, and completely unacceptable. We fervently hope for a positive report.’
Judith Allen, FACK member, spoke about the incident that killed her 23 year old son Steven Allen on a building site in Bradford, when was crushed by a scissor grab lifting an uneven load of cement bags. The grab was being used for a job that the manual expressly prohibited, with warning of serious injury or death for wrong usage. No-one in a position of responsibility had read the manual. Additionally the safety chain on the grab was broken which was common knowledge but allegedly no-one on site knew what it was for. In addition the job being done was not properly organised, and there was no designated banksman. Some shocking details about poor safety on site emerged at the Inquest, 2nd to 4th February in Bradford, which returned a verdict of Accidental death due a failure to provide a safe system, no one was trained, there was no banksman and the system was unsafe. The HSE investigation continues. More information
Linda Whelan described how her son, steeplejack Craig Whelan, was killed in a horrendous fire ball explosion on a demolition job in Bolton, when he, and colleague Paul Wakefield, were sent in to cut down a chimney from the inside with hot cutting gear, despite the managers responsible for the job having been advised not to send workers in to do the work in this way. An e-mail from the manufacturer of the lacquer substance coating the inside of the chimney warned that using hot cutting gear presented a clear risk of fire and explosion as the residues were flammable and that the chimney should be cut down using cold cutting gear from the outside. . Craig and Paul were not told of this information and were sent to their deaths. Their company had secured the job of demolish the chimney using the cheaper method of hot cutting from the inside rather than the safer but more expensive methods using scaffolding and cold cutting from the outside. The three managers responsible were charged with manslaughter but the case collapsed and they pleaded guilty to lesser health and safety offences, were found guilty and fined small amounts. Following this Linda was denied an inquest. More information
Using their own and other FACK cases as examples, Linda and Judith elaborated on the underlying issues on site, within the companies and in the wider environment that led to the avoidable deaths of their sons. Their main points are an abysmal lack of knowledge and training of the supervisors, managers and directors; lack of safe systems for reporting and remedying issues; lack of involvement and consultation with workers; lack of good risk assessments; paper systems rather than real working system and a general lack of fear of enforcement action. Workers, especially vulnerable workers such as young, agency, temporary and migrant workers, fear the sack, if they question unsafe procedures and this will worsen in the current recession. FACK is also concerned about false self employment and a lack of trade unions to represent workers and challenge the power of a bad employer.
Judith and Linda identified a massive accountability deficit amongst managers and directors of construction companies to create safe sites and to be held accountable when things go wrong, even when they are grossly negligent. Directors have no individual positive legal duty for health and safety and so rarely face charges of manslaughter and the penalty of prison. This, along with a decline in the numbers of HSE inspectors and the issuing of enforcement notices, prosecution and spot inspections, leads to a complete lack of deterrence and fails to prevent other totally avoidable deaths. The attitude of successive government to workplace H&S by playing down the necessary role of law and enforcement as ’red tape’ and ‘a burden on business’, ministers’ promotion of ‘deregulation and light touch regulation’ send out the completely wrong message to employers and put workers at risk.
Problems with the way workplace deaths are treated by the police, HSE, coroners and criminal justice system, add insult to injury and mean the effect of the traumatic death of a family members affects everyone for many years. Judith and Linda powerfully expressed the feelings of most members of FACK, that very often they feel the enforcement agencies are reluctant to treat the death as a crime, reluctant to prosecute and investigate properly, and the families are treated as if they do not count in the process. They end up feeling as if the person they loved who has been killed is seen as nothing, and they are almost more guilty for raising question and concerns about the investigation than the people responsible!
Linda and Judith, along with members of BCDAG, told Rita of their anger as well as their sadness, and though they cannot bring back their own sons they want to stop other families from having to go through the same tragedies. They made it clear that they hope her report will suggest major changes. FACK left Rita with information about other FACK construction death cases (3).
‘There is no real health and safety culture in this country and until employers are held fully legally accountable, there never will be.’ said Linda and Judith in conclusion.
For more information contact Hilda Palmer 0161 636 7557
2. Meeting attended by: Linda Whelan, Judith Allen and Helen Cook for FACK – Dawn Adams FACK unable to attend.
3. FACK other Construction death cases:
Inquest verdict: Accidental Death, no prosecution. HSE investigation of standards for safety bar on pulleys of luffing cranes.