A building site is a very dangerous place

Collapse of building at Lorca

There are two major daunting thoughts that preoccupy most architects. First, that a building you have designed collapsed and kill or injure one or more people. Second, a building worker die o is seriously injured on one of your building sites.

According to the Spanish Workers' Union, construction left 177 dead by accident throughout Spain in 2009.

According to this study, falls from a height have been the main causes of death by accident in the construction sector. In second place comes death by crushing, accounting for 30% of fatal accidents. It was followed by shock (7%), run over with a vehicle (5%) and deaths from electrical accidents (4%).They also highlighted the accidents caused by heat stroke, which accounted for 12% of all deaths occurring mainly summer months.


Building site and architect´s responsibilities.

As architect we have a direct responsibility for everything that occur on building site, as a matter of fact each project that requires a building licence must be accompanied with a “Security and Health at Work Project”. This project must identify all occupational hazards that may occur on that particular project, specifying preventive measures and technical safeguards intended to control and reduce such risks, also it must propose a minimum budget to acquire all that may be necessary so that the building workers are equipped with the necessary equipment that will allow them carry out his or her work in a safe environment. In preparing this project must be taken into account environmental conditions where work will be performed and type and characteristics of materials and elements used.


Hard reality on a Spanish building site.

All this is very good in theory, but what is the truth behind a building site.

Well, in my professional experience I have encountered various scenarios depending on whether the works are contracted by someone who is building his own home or a professional property developer who is building a complete urbanization.

In the first case, the individual home owner, normally contract his work with a local builder, usually a self employed who subcontract most of the trades and do the fabrics of the building himself aided by his sons or cousins. His main problem is not the lack of resources such as having proper safety harness or enough scaffolding which is also true, but the temerity in executing the works. These builders knowledge on safety are based on whether he has had a previous accident or not executing a particular job.

I have seen conducts that have put my hair on end. For instance, a building workers walking on the edge of a three storey high roof without a harness on, or cutting reinforcement steel rods with an electric grinder without any protection glasses on. I must confess that the reason given to me when I asked them why they have not taken any precaution as described on the “Security and Health at Work Project” they normally answer; that they have done the same jobs for years and nothing has happened to them.

The situation is very different on big projects, where a major contractor is involved. A safety officer is in charge and you know that at least somebody has read the “Security and Health at Work Project” and an attempt is made to carry out most of the instructions given on it.

It is true that a sometimes I have seen a property developer scavenging onto the safety budget to save himself a few Euros, but on my personal experience, I must confess has been the exception.

However in every job small o large I have to battle with site supervisors or directly with the building labour just to achieve that everybody wears a safety helmet while on site.

Often when I thought I have won the battle and I got into my car, I could observe from my rear-view mirror that they had taken it off and throwing it onto a side. When asked why? They always claim that it is very uncomfortable to wear a safety helmet, which often implies either that they have not work on a building site for very long or just a pure a lack of responsibility for their own safety.


New licences for construction employees.

Thanks heaven, that during summer of 2007 a professional licence for construction workers came into force. As determined by the General Convention of the Construction Industry a Professional ID Card for the Construction Industry will be mandatory as from 31 of December of 2011.

These licences guarantee that site workers have passed a medical fitness test, have had a good training on safety at work and also certifies, among other data, their professional status and their periods of employment in different companies in which they have been working during their professional life.

I do not consider it to be the panacea for the building industry, but I sincerely hope that the Spanish authorities achieve a more professional building industry and procure a safer building site for all.

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