I was researching industrial safety news when a recent workplace fatality in Singapore caught my eye. A viaduct that was under construction near an expressway collapsed on July 14, leaving one dead and 10 injured. This incident calls to mind a high-profile construction event that occurred in Toronto in 2009: four Metron Construction workers were killed when the swing stage on which they were working collapsed at an apartment building.
To me, these incidents speak to the inherently risky nature of construction work that cuts across national borders. Construction is one of Canada’s five most dangerous industries, according to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada. While many of the hazards in construction are also present in other high-risk industries, several safety issues are rooted in the nature of the sector and the way in which it is structured.
The sheer complexity and scale of construction jobs mean that projects are often multi-tiered and involve numerous contracts. The client, who commissions the erection of a building or structure, is at the top of the food chain, hiring consultants to advise on architectural design, project management and civil engineering. The consultants then parcel out the actual construction work to general contractors. As some construction jobs require specialized skills and equipment, many large construction firms further subcontract projects to other companies with the necessary expertise.
While subcontracting provides flexibility in meeting the unique requirements of each project, this practice gives rise to a fragmented system of subcontractors that can compromise oh&s oversight and obligations, as well as weaken the grip on accountability for the safety of workers, many of whom are transient. It also creates a work environment in which different trades work together on one site for a short duration, and each trade presents its own physical hazards.
Low-bid contracting and production pressures compound the risk factor. The viaduct collapse in Singapore is a case in point: the company that was building the viaduct secured the contract in 2015, as it had submitted the lowest bid. It was also fined in the same week as the incident over a safety lapse that led to the death of another worker in 2015.
As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Before the first brick is even laid, safety practices should be woven into a construction project by incorporating contractor prequalification and selection criteria into the bidding and contracting process. A 2013 article by the American Society of Safety Engineers says this can be achieved by using a contractor’s safety record as a prequalification in the bidding process and having a safety engineer analyze conceptual project designs, predict potential hazards and provide engineering solutions.
While the pressure to look for the most competitive bid is not likely to go away, the Labourer’s Health and Safety Fund of America believes that responsible contracting practices, which include establishing basic safety standards and factoring in the cost of safety equipment and worker training in bids, can create a level playing field for low-bid contracting without the negative ramifications of substandard work and questionable safety practices.
Jean Lian is the editor of OHS Canada.