The real safety catch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 1994, 12:00am

WORKER safety on construction sites has been getting a lot of attention from the Administration this past year, as it should. The Governor, in response to last year's horrific lift accident in which 13 construction workers plunged to their deaths in North Point, made reducing accidents on construction sites one of his policy aims last October.

While the Government has begun promoting the fact that safety is the concern of all parties involved, including the Government itself, employers, labour unions as well as employees, the Administration has yet to follow through with that message.

Legislation taken up by the Administration for the past year looks only at increasing the contractor's responsibility but does little to send the message to employees that they have a responsibility too and that the Government means business.

Construction Sites (Safety) Regulations require employers, among other measures, to provide safety helmets, belts, etc., to employees but what penalty is there if the employee chooses to flout the law? The obvious response is to call for more safety officers to patrol construction sites to ensure that the workers wear their helmets and belts, but the Administration has already legislated for more safety officers. Furthermore, like police officers who can't be expected to be everywhere at once, neither can safety officers.

Lately, the Administration has proposed improving site safety by suspending contractors whose reportable accidents are higher than average from tendering for Government contracts. These are strong incentives for employers to meet the safety legislation but what incentives are there for employees to do likewise? Does it also provide a disgruntled subcontractor with an opportunity for extracting his pound of flesh? Or for the triads to 'arrange' for minor infringements should the contractor refuse to pay protection money? What about disgruntled workers? Last year, there were 2,473 accidents in the industry involving someone falling and this resulted in 29 fatalities. There were 894 accidents involving falling objects of which 10 resulted in fatalities. How many of these accidents involved employees who did not have their safety helmets or belts on? From that frightening record, only five employees were prosecuted for failing to obey safety rules. Of the five, only two were convicted for failing to wear their safety helmets. What was their fine? Out of a maximum fine of $10,000, the average was $625; a mere slap on the wrist.

THE remainder were prosecuted for smoking in restricted areas. What were they fined? A mere slap on the wrist with the average at $667 out of a maximum fine of $10,000. Last year there were 110 accidents involving fire or explosions in which two were fatal. It is not the pittance they were fined but the handful who were prosecuted. The Government has pledged tougher action - let's see what happens this year.

The Government is getting tough on delinquent contractors but they should not be the only ones. The workers must be made responsible and encouraged to observe safety laws for their own as well as others' safety. A worker should learn that putting on a safety-belt may delay his job for three minutes but will protect his life and his colleagues. It maybe too hot to wear a safety helmet but it may make the difference between life and death. Those safety goggles may be uncomfortable but may save his eyes.

Educating employees on the application of safety equipment is the first step. One possibility is to require every worker to attend an induction course on safety. The second step is to ensure that there is a tangible disincentive for any employee who chooses to jeopardise the safety of others as well as his own.

This disincentive should not be a mere slap on the hand unlike the policy towards the contractors which is tough, and it must be tough, effective and simple. Why not introduce a 'fixed penalty' system for simple breaches of the law? Only when we make safety everyone's responsibility will we improve our construction safety record. Safety is you and me.