“UK Construction workers are nearly four times as likely to be killed at work compared to the average worker, and an estimated 70,000 in the industry will today be suffering ill health as a result of their work.”  So said HSE principal inspector, Tony Mitchell, in March of this year.


A headline, if we needed it, just to remind us all that the UK construction industry is a very risky business in terms of immediate danger and the less obvious, but equally deadly in the medium to long term, occupational health.


These are exceptionally high figures when you consider the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are on record for reporting that in 2014 the UK construction industry accounted for only about 5% of the employees in Britain.


Interestingly during April last year The Guardian newspaper ran an article on the British Construction Industry and provided extraordinary graphic details of just how dangerous it is.  The said article stated quite categorically that the construction industry is the most dangerous sector in Britain; there is no trade like it.


The Guardian reporter put it into context thus:-


  • The international conflict in Afghanistan commenced with a military invasion of Afghanistan, launched by the U.S. and the U.K. in October of 2001. It was largely in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and with the intent of removing the Taliban regime from power.


  • Up to the article being published, during this horrific conflict where troops are exposed to state of the art warfare, with bullets, missiles and landmines to contend with on a daily basis, 448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the conflict commenced in 2001.


  • Staggeringly, over the same period of time, whilst working within a peaceful environment that is regulated by an Act of Parliament and policed by its inspectorate, overseen by hundreds of qualified Health and Safety managers and advisers, plus cajoled by various non-profit making, independent organisations such as the Considerate Constructors Scheme, more than 760 construction workers have been killed on construction sites in the British Isles.


As if to highlight just how dangerous UK construction is, only two days after the Guardian ran their article, a man was killed and another injured at the conversion of the former U.S. Navy building in Mayfair, London, when a mini-digger on the second floor of the six-floor building fell to the floor below.


Also of note was that during the summer of last year, a national targeted inspection focussing on health risks for construction workers saw enforcement action taken at one in six of hundreds of sites visited.


During a concentrated two-week period of proactive inspections, the HSE demanded improvements, and in some cases put an immediate stop to work activities, where they fell short of expected standards.


Inspectors focussed on significant health risk issues, such as respiratory risks from dusts containing silica materials, exposure to other hazardous substances such as cement and lead paint, manual handling, noise and vibration.


Conditions were so poor in some situations that the work had to be stopped on at least 13 occasions.


A total of 560 sites were visited and enforcement notices were served at 85 of them. 13 Prohibition Notices were served and 107 Improvement Notices, plus a total of 239 health-related Notices of Contravention were served at 201 of the sites.


Now, what really troubles me is that it has taken over 40 years to be “this good”! 


To provide a benchmark, the Health and Safety at Work Act came into being in 1974 and during the immediate years following its implementation, up to 170 people would be killed annually on UK construction sites.  It was not until 1990’s that UK construction recorded annual figures that were below 100 fatalities.  A total of 42 fatalities were recorded on UK construction sites last year and the average for the last 5 years has been 45.


I hope you too are appalled at these figures and also like me you start to try and visualise what lays behind these stark, yet emotionless and unimaginative numbers.  For starters:-


  • On average, one ‘Average-Joe’ has their life terminated every week on a UK construction site
  • Their work colleagues, and sometimes members of the public, will witness the life shattering experience first-hand
  • Probably for the first time in their lives these people will bear witness to the sight of a dead human-being which, more often than not, shall be covered in blood and their bodies mutilated
  • Someone will have to inform the deceased’s next of kin of the “unfortunate accident” and subsequently behold a fellow human-being instantly breaking down in front of them
  • The family and friends of ‘the deceased’ will prepare and attend a funeral and say ‘Good-bye’ to their son / brother / husband / father / uncle / friend
  • After the funeral everyone involved, directly or indirectly, has to get on with their lives; somehow


Now; we can put highly accurate, but totally emotionless, figures to record those who are killed.  However it is impossible to put even closely estimated figures to those who suffer, for the rest of their lives, as a result of one solitary construction site death. 


A wide, stirring and highly emotional ripple effect occurs, engulfing truly countless numbers of people, each and every time a UK construction worker is killed whilst going about their every-day work.  A ripple that takes in those directly and indirectly affected by the tragic, and some would say ‘fierce’, ending of a construction workers life.


Nevertheless, what we desperately need to do, and urgently, is to reduce the amount of data we use to announce and disseminate the incidents, injuries and fatalities on UK construction sites and commence with an intensity telling the memorable and compelling stories that underlie those facts.


In doing so we shall reduce the cold and unemotional numeracy and introduce the warm and vibrant words that can convey with a passion what exactly happened;


We need to tell the stories of those who have fallen.


Yes, we need the figures, but as Houston University’s Dr. Brené Brown, explained so emotively in a Harvard Business Review article last year:-


“Data alone won’t get you a standing ovation.”


Dr. Brené Brown continued to say, “I’m often faced with a mountain of data that the speaker wants to get across. My job is to help the person tell the story behind the data— to reveal the soul behind the numbers.


Drawing on this experience, as well as my recent research into the most successful TED talks and the neuroscience behind audience response, I’ve concluded that that data has the most impact when it’s wrapped in a story.”


Dr. Brené Brown’s Story-telling concept also falls into line with the perception of Jeni Cross, a sociology professor at Colorado State University on the three keys to effective social change;


  • How we present information matters greatly; it has to be tangible and personalised


  • Set behavioral expectations and connect them to values that resonate with your audience


  • If we see someone doing something, we’re more likely to do it too; so be that Leader who “walks the talk” repetitively, all day, every day


What makes me so sure this is the action we should take?


All because over the last 5 years I have followed the credo of Dr. Brené Brown and Jeni Cross whilst presenting workshops and seminars on Behavioural Safety.  During those engagement sessions; with construction site workers to senior construction executives and their clients, I have passionately personalised the stories I have told so that they connected with those numerous and various audiences and ensured I “walked-the-talk.” Always.


All by recalling the details of my own, very personal story as a young construction manager:-


  • How I stood over the blooded, crumpled and oddly deflated body of a young man who had just that moment fallen 6 floors through a Hoist tower and had the skin and bone structure to his face smashed to pieces on the hoist tower as he fell.


  • How I comforted the Supervisor of that young man, as the Supervisor sat with his hands clasping his head in a vain attempt to control his violently shaking body whilst he convulsed with grief. The Supervisor wailed like a banshee and sobbed uncontrollably.


So much so that I looked on in complete and utter disbelief as I realised that the grief stricken supervisor had actually ‘cried-a-pool-of-tears’, as a dark and morbid puddle appeared on the vinyl floor in front of the Supervisor.


  • I recalled how I had to admit that the experience was all too much for me to process without the aid of another. I had to seek the counsel of my GP who graciously and compassionately explained, all while I bawled my eyes out in his surgery, why I felt that I had been knocked out of this world that we know as “the now” and into a parallel universe where I really could not feel, or relate to, the places-people-processes that I had grown to know and love as ‘sanity’.


  • How I had to succumb to a course of diazepam that my GP prescribed for me to support and assist my rehabilitation.


  • How I sat consoling my Boss, the Project Manager, the day he returned to work after appearing in court as the sole person responsible for the young Labourers death, where he received a six month suspended sentence and a fine that was the equivalent to ¾ of his annual salary.


My hope above all else is that those people I am privileged to talk with at Behavioural Safety workshops and seminars whilst I recall my own personal story of hell on earth, is that they never, ever have to experience such a living nightmare.


As suggested through the generous and complimentary feedback that I have received from those construction workers, executives and clients, I for one shall keep on with the Story-Telling to, as Dr. Brené Brown so eloquently put it, “reveal the soul behind the numbers.”


What say you?  Have you, directly or indirectly, a Story to tell that will enhance the data to make the UK construction industry healthier and safer?


Most importantly, please will you commence sharing it?


Many thanks in advance.


Elvin Box

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