The long overdue acquittal last week of the ‘Shrewsbury 24’ who were convicted of illegal picketing 47 years ago took us back to a dark era of violent conflict between the police and trade unions.
The shameful way workers fighting for better conditions were treated and denied legal justice is shocking to a modern audience, but even more horrifying is why they were striking in the first place.
The builder turned actor Ricky Tomlinson – the highest profile of the 24 – recalled that the equivalent of one person EVERY SINGLE WORKING DAY died on a construction project.
That industrial scale carnage is hard to imagine in our health and safety age, but the truth is that it was more dangerous to work on a building site than down a coal mine in the 1970s.
How quickly we forget and start to take for granted changes that transform and improve the quality of life and work, but there is a parallel scandal taking place as we speak in Qatar where more than 6,000 migrant workers are thought to have died building football stadia for next year’s World Cup.
The young millionaires who are now seeking to qualify their nations for the competition are often criticised for their lack of social conscience, but many are now taking a stand against this appalling waste of life and some national football associations are considering a boycott.
Just as Tomlinson and his colleagues took a stand that led to them spending two years in prison – and one losing his life – they are now faced with a dilemma that most of us are lucky we never have to confront.
However, there is also a different kind of carnage unfolding on modern British construction sites. It is easier to ignore because it is harder to see, but it is no less real than the scandal the Shrewsbury 24 were protesting about. Where young men (they were all young men in those days) were dying in plain sight, there are many more (mostly young men) dying in the shadows today.
Physical health and safety has made fantastic progress and deaths on site are very rare these days. The industry, the Health & Safety Executive and others deserve great praise for this progress, but the modern building process is taking a toll in a very different way with suicide now the biggest construction killer.
Most of us will act quickly if faced with a physical injury. If someone has a broken leg, you offer sympathy and advice. Mental health is more challenging. What is it? What should I say? What if I make it worse?
The construction charity Mates in Mind discovered that nine out of ten workers who experience mental ill-health face stigma and discrimination as a result – an extraordinary statistic in the 21st Century – but one that confirms what we probably all recognise: We are pretty good at ‘safety’, but not so comfortable with ‘health’ – and particularly mental health.
The industry has made some significant progress across the sector with initiatives designed to give every worker access to someone with mental health training on site, but we still have a long way to go.
Getting someone to open up about their problems remains a serious challenge. Engineers and site-based workers are notoriously reluctant to display apparent ‘weakness’ by asking for help so the situation continues to fester and deteriorate – with potentially tragic consequences.
The time and budgetary pressures our industry faces are more intense than ever, leaving no room to fail – or even pause for breath – and as a result people just ‘soldier on’ keeping their gradually deteriorating mental state to themselves.
As friends and colleagues, we need to be alert to the symptoms and ready to put our natural reticence to confront mental health problems to one side.
The mental health charity Samaritans says that the vast majority of calls it receives are from people who just need a ‘sounding board’. Around 80% of callers are not suicidal – they just want someone to talk to. And that is the first step.
They also hear from a surprisingly high number of people in senior management positions feeling the isolation of leadership. This is not uncommon in our sector because, like many of the issues we face, the way supply chains operate can be very harmful. Late payment is a particular pressure on SMEs, particularly if owners are struggling to pay their bills and their staff. Many also feel under pressure to meet unreasonable deadlines and reduce prices.
The construction industry charity Lighthouse Club offers a dedicated helpline for anyone suffering with the particular stresses and strains created by the highly pressurised construction environment and has been helping to shine a light on this problem since 1956. Its services have never been in greater demand yet it receives no public funding and is completely reliant on charitable giving and the fund raising efforts of various industry initiatives.
The pandemic has added to the strain that was already there and many in our sector are cracking under the pressure – and for an industry that already had serious recruitment issues, tackling mental health must be a priority. To make construction-related professions more appealing to a wider demographic – particularly women, ethnic minorities and school leavers – we need to make sure we cover all aspects of health, safety and well-being.
We must develop a more caring environment because reducing pressure and stress on the workforce is the mark of a more civilised industry – not one still stuck in the ‘dark ages’ when suffering was covered up and people could be jailed for taking a stand.
This is also a crucial part of the culture change championed by Dame Judith Hackitt and demanded in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.
The pandemic has also got people talking much more about “kindness” and our notoriously tough industry needs to take that on board. Why can’t we be kinder to each other?
Ricky Tomlinson and co took a hugely important stand all those years ago and shone a light on the ‘dark days’ of construction and a scandalous corporate effort to cover it up. In our far more transparent modern world, we must not ignore the ongoing health and safety scandal right under our noses.