27 September 2001 Edition

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Tragic death during Construction Safety Week


The tragic death of another construction worker during this week's Construction Industry Safety Week, brings to 15 the number of deaths on building sites in the 26 Counties this year.

Fachtna Ó Donnabháin from Clonakilty was killed on Tuesday morning while operating machinery for John Fleming Construction on a site one-and-a-half miles from the West Cork town. It was part of a 27-acre development - West Cork Technology Park - not unlike the many other sites facilitating the growing IT industry in Ireland. Launched two years ago with much hope of spin-off developments for the locality, West Cork Technology Park was this week a place of mourning for fellow workers.

Inadequate and delayed government action on the issue of construction safety is cited as reasons for accidents on building sites, by both the Builders and Allied Trades Union (BATU) and SIPTU.

SIPTU Construction Branch Secretary Eric Fleming said in a statement this week that he believes there has been a marked decline in safety standards on building sites around Dublin recently. The failure to introduce new safety regulations and the manner in which the courts deal with rogue employers are among the reasons Fleming identifies for this.

Forty-five people have died in 26-County workplaces this year to date. In August alone, 11 people lost their lives in workplaces in the state, compared with two during the same month last year. A strong note of warning has been sounded by the Health and Safety Authority that, if this pattern continues, workplace fatalities in 2001 may exceed last year's figure of 69.

Tom Kitt, 26-County Minister for Labour Affairs at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, committed himself to the introduction of new safety regulations in Febuary 2000, but these have not yet even come before the Dáil. Eric Fleming says that this is ``sending out the wrong message'' to employers who, he claims, are ``hiding behind the fact that the regulations have not yet become law and are still only proposals''.

Adding to this delay, he says, is the leniency with which offending employers are treated in the courts.

``At the moment we are unhappy with the way in which the Courts are dealing with rogue employers,'' he says. ``The recently published annual review of the Health and Safety Authority shows that Courts are far too lenient and fines are far too low in cases where wilful neglect against workers on sites has been proven - and therefore they are not acting as a deterrent.''

Fleming is also calling for counselling for workers affected by witnessing a serious accident or death on a building site. Many of these workers, he says, have left the construction industry as a result of their shock. Some, he says, have committed suicide.

Besides criticism directed at the Dublin government, Fleming also identifies the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) as not doing enough on this issue. ``The HSA is closing some sites down because of unsafe practices, but they are not highlighting these cases in the media. In fact, in some cases they are giving the employer the opportunity to close down voluntarily, instead of publicising those who are found guilty of putting lives at risk.'' A `name and shame' policy towards these employers should be adopted, according to SIPTU.

When An Phoblacht contacted the press office of the HSA in the late afternoon on Wednesday - one full day after Fachtna Ó Donnabháin's death in Cork, they were unaware of the incident, and were only able to confirm that they were conducting an investigation into the incident later on by e-mail. This may, however, be a reflection of their lack of resources, rather than incompetence.

The planned introduction of a `safe pass scheme' on 1 January 2002 with the power to ensure that every construction worker in the state gets a minimum seven hours of safety training before going on site, may prove to be a significant boost to construction safety. BATU has set up its own company to carry out this training, the Builders Union Training Services, although, according to a senior BATU official, training for workers is not enough.

``Health and Safety will not improve unless the wider issue of how people are employed is tackled,'' Denis Farrell, BATU's Dublin Regional Organiser and Safety Co-ordinator told An Phoblacht. Subcontracting of building employers, a practice that is generally less regulated than normal, direct building contracting, is partly to blame, he says.

``This problem is here to stay as long as subcontracting continues to expand. We've advised the Minister, Tom Kitt, of these concerns and the obvious link between safety breaches and subcontracting.'' Farrell has requested a meeting with Kitt about building site safety concerns.

An Phoblacht
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