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Saturday, 9 July 2016

Does the ‘detached society’ in the construction industry indeed lead to a much higher number of fatal accidents in 2016? Or is it just ‘statistical coincidence’?!

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the detached society in The Netherlands. It was a story about leading, large companies, which are liable for their core business and/or key projects, but leave the execution and the ‘de facto responsibility’ to an opaque group of subcontractors and freelance professionals from all over Europe.  One of the protagonists in this article was construction company Van Wijnen:

Also Van Wijnen, the main contractor responsible for the construction of the distribution centre, has hardly any of their own people walking around on the terrain. The company guides 50 subcontractors and suppliers, which are all specialized in one particular part of the building process. Project manager Pieter Lammé at Van Wijnen is one of the few people who has a clear view on the big picture during the construction activities.

“When I started at Van Wijnen, 38 years ago, we still had masons, concrete workers, painters, crane operators and installers on our payroll”, according to Lammé. “Nowadays, we outsource all this specialist labour to other companies and freelancers. We are only directing the project”.

This is really shocking, when you let this text sink in to you:
One of the largest construction companies in The Netherlands only acts as a director in a feature film, who guides a bunch of leading actors and extras into making a notable performance, but does not feel ultimately involved in the quality of the final result?! It is almost like the people of [...] Van Wijnen are ‘accidental bystanders' in their own business processes.

This way, running a construction company is turning into running a trading and brokerage company; something that one can do, without ever having experience with bricks and mortar, concrete and steel at all. One just needs to bring together the principal with the chosen architecture, suppliers, structural engineers, freelance building professionals and executive engineers, as well as building materials and other supplies. That's all!

And what about the staff themselves, working for these companies? What will be their part in this deal?
Perhaps they are foreign workers from Eastern Europe or the Far East. People, who are deployed through (sometimes shady) ‘temporary labour organizations’, whilst hoping for a better future for them and their families.

I had to think about this particular article, when I stumbled upon the following news message from the Inspectorate for Social Affairs and Employment (“SZW” | news message originally in Dutch):

Right before the so-called ‘Constructor’s holiday’ (i.e. ‘bouwvak ‘ in Dutch – EL), there must be extra attention for safety!

During 2016HY1, the number of serious accidents in the construction industry rose by 14% and the number of lethal accidents even soared with 56%, in comparison with 2015HY1. The number of complaints under investigation and signals is 16% higher. The weeks just before the constructor’s holiday are a dangerous period in which extra attention for safety is necessary, especially now that the number of accidents is rising.

The largest number of serious accidents (42%), as well as lethal incidents (50%), in the construction industry took place within the common civil and utility building sector. Apart from that, the subsectors with the highest accident rate within the construction industry are excavation work, work on electro-technical building installations, demolition work, plumbing and painting, with 4-7% of the serious accidents and 10-20% of the lethal accidents in the building industry. Consequently construction belongs to the three most dangerous industries in The Netherlands.

Of all the accidents investigated by the labour inspection, it became clear that in a quarter of the accidents there was no direct supervision at the building site. [...]

“Both scale up and building sites changing in conglomerates of supervisors, workers, temporary workers and freelancers, increase the odds for accidents. Besides Dutch, many other languages like Polish, Romanian and English are spoken at the building site. As a consequence, miscommunication does occur. We see more and more constructors walking around at the building site, for whom it is not clearly arranged at all, WHO is actually responsible for their safety?! Also viable cooperation agreements lack between parties”, according to Marga Zuurbier, director Labour circumstances of the Inspectorate for Social Affairs and Employment (SZW)

There you have it!

Of course one has to be careful with statistics: when the absolute number of accidents is actually very small, a small increase in absolute numbers could lead to dramatic shifts in percentages.
Therefore it is a shame that in this case the absolute numbers are not mentioned in an attached statistics table.

Yet, I think that it is safe to state that also the absolute numbers of (lethal) incidents are substantial in the building industry, as it is a large industry with a lot of people working in it on a daily basis. That makes these increasing numbers so worrisome: they could be ‘just simple coincidence’, but the odds for that are not very big, in my humble opinion.

With the aforementioned story of ‘construction-director-without-constructors-on-the-payroll’ Van Wijnen in mind, it is impossible not to see the big picture behind these shocking accident data from the labour inspection: construction companies don’t seem to FEEL responsible for their workers anymore! Or, as I said in the older article: they are “accidental bystanders” in their own core activities! They just happen to be around!

It is like the both report and Marga Zuurbier of the Labour Inspection state (see red and bold text):
  • in a quarter of the accidents, there was no direct supervision at the building site;
  • Building sites changed in conglomerates of supervisors, workers, temporary workers and freelancers;
  • There is a constant Babylonian confusing going on at the building sites, with all these different languages being used by the different worker groups;
  • We see more and more people walking at the building site, of which we don’t know who is ultimately responsible for their safety.

For me these soaring numbers of (non-)lethal accidents, as well as the circumstances at the time and place of occurance, are definitely symptoms of the detached society, which I painted in my first article.

It is a very bad and dangerous development when main contractors (i.e. employers-in-chief(!)) A. don’t arrange the safety and physical wellbeing of their workers on the building sites and B. themselves not keep a “laser-guided eye” on that, in spite of the fact that they are ultimately responsible for ALL their workers.

Of course I don’t know whether construction company Van Wijnen itself is involved either in such accidents or in such poor employer’s behaviour at the building sites. I simply can’t proof this, just based upon the statistical data mentioned in this article from the labour inspection. 

The only thing that I know is that Van Wijnen is one of the poster companies, with respect to the detached society, as well as of the possibly deadly consequences that such a detached society could have for the people and workers involved.

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