Avoiding accidents in the construction industry

According to the latest statistics from Federated Employers Mutual Assurance (FEM), the agency that provides workmen’s compensation for the construction industry, there has been a steady decline in the number of accidents over the past three years. In 2010, for example, there were 9 858 accidents and 93 fatalities whilst in 2011 there were 8 099 accidents and 50 fatalities. “Although the number of accidents has gone down, there has been a dramatic increase in the average cost of an accident,” says Deon Bester, Occupational Health and Safety Manager for the Master Builders Association of the Western Cape (MBAWC).

In 2010 the average cost of an accident was R 11 961.00, however this increased to R 21 857. 00 per accident in 2011. This constitutes almost a 100% increase within a year and equates to between four and five people being injured and requiring medical attention per hour. While the direct cost related to these injuries is R 804 338, 00 every day there are also substantial indirect costs associated. These include loss of time, lapses in productivity, re-employment, retraining and the potential damage to a company’s reputation.

“So what causes these accidents?” asks Bester.

As the lead auditor of the MBAWC, he has audited approximately 450 sites regionally, nationally and in neighbouring countries like Botswana and Mozambique. From this, he has established that there are four primary causes of accidents in South Africa. These are insufficient forecasting, a lack of supervision, inadequate training and poor communication. He elaborates on these below:

“The construction industry currently has almost five unplanned events per hour at a cost of R21 857. 00 each. While these are unplanned they can also be prevented through better forecasting. Before the work even begins contractors need to assess the site and evaluate the potential risks and hazards involved. They will also need to determine whether or not the hazard can be removed, if the risk can be controlled and what protective measures must be put in place to protect the workforce as a whole. In addition, consideration must be given to ways of minimising harm in the event of an accident.

Most construction sites are, by their very nature, organised chaos so it is imperative that the crew knows what the plan is for the day. Not only does this help workers to keep out of each other’s way, it also gives everyone a clearer picture of what is expected of them. Imagine the mass confusion on a site if everyone just went ahead and did what they thought they needed to do without considering how to go about doing it! While there are certain things that cannot be predicted, for instance a client making changes to the original plan, this is where the need for proper communication comes in to play.

Effective communication is paramount to getting vital information across to the workforce, yet there is a tendency to make assumptions about the knowledge and ability of staff. Employers tend to forget about the sometimes low levels of education characteristic of a high percentage of workers and overlook or possibly ignore the very real language barriers that abound in this country. All of these pose major problems when it comes to communicating.

Employers need to make an effort to understand their workforce and provide them with information that is not only in a language that they understand but is also relevant to them. I’d suggest holding short, 10 minute meetings each day where safety and other information pertinent to the day can be passed on to the staff and where discussions on recent accidents as well as ways to prevent similar incidents can take place. Here supervisors can obtain the opinions of those on the ground and use these to improve Occupational Health and Safety on the particular site that they are working on as well as on future sites.

This lack of understanding amongst employees, when coupled with inadequate training on matters of health and safety, further exacerbates the potential for accidents to happen. Many contractors have files full of documents proving that training has taken place. However, all too often the trainee cannot apply what was taught. The purpose of training must be to provide workers with the right information to equip them with the knowledge they need to perform a task safely and without risk to their health and that of others. There must be processes in place, like outcomes-based assessments, to ensure that the training is understood and that the workers are able to apply what they have learnt.

Inadequate training can also result in supervisors not understanding their role. From my experience supervisors do not understand what is expected of them. They are responsible for the safety of the workers under them and should act as a coach and mentor to ensure that safety practices are upheld such as wearing protective gear. Insufficient supervision is another major contributing factor to accidents. Figures provided whilst performing audits show that on average a supervisor has eight to ten people under his or her direct control. The relatively small ratio of supervisor to worker should make managing health and safety easier but this does not appear to be the case; considering the number of accidents that do occur. To ensure more effective supervision, an idea might be to designate one person in each work area to act as the safety coordinator for that section to enforce safety rules on site and be accountable for the actions of the crew.”

Bester concludes by saying, “If we fail to address these causes we are actually setting ourselves up for accidents to happen. Improved forecasting, communication, training and supervision can result in cleaner, neater, safer, healthier and more productive sites. MBAWC members reported only 482 accidents during 2011 which resulted in a single fatality. This figure is substantially less than that reported by other provinces – proving that our members are taking the right steps to avoid accidents.”

For more information, visit www.mbawc.org.za


About the Master Builders Association of the Western Cape (MBAWC): The Master Builders and Allied Trades’ Association of the Western Cape is a registered trade association for employers in the building industry. Its membership comprises some 400 companies in the Western Cape, most of whom are either builders, building subcontractors, building merchants or manufacturers of building products. The Association was founded in 1891 and is the oldest organisation of its kind in South Africa. It is affiliated to M.B.S.A., the Master Builders South Africa, but is totally autonomous.

The MBAWC’s primary objective is to ensure that the reputation of members in this area remains high and that investment in building is therefore attracted to it. It does this by insisting that Members work to the highest possible standards, aesthetically, technically and ethically – in short, that they conduct their business in a thoroughly professional manner at all times. Membership of the MBAWC is on a voluntary basis. Its members handle some 70% of all the building work in Cape Town and employ a similar percentage of the total building industry workforce.


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