Safety Behaviour in the Construction Industry

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Health and Safety Authority

Summary Statement

A multifaceted study of occupational safety culture and habits in the Irish construction industry.

The number of fatalities at work in the construction sector remains a matter of serious concern for the Government, employers and employees alike (HSA, 1999).

Statistics on fatalities generally places the construction sector as the second highest industry, only surpassed by the agricultural sector. Among the most common sources of fatalities in construction, falls from heights is the category that accounts for the highest proportion of deaths. A brief comment of some statistics will be given below, especially for Northern Ireland and the Republic. Some international figures for falls from heights will also be reproduced as an example of the relatively high percentage of fatalities in this category reported in the literature.

Construction Fatality Rates in Europe

The HSE (2001) reports that the European average fatality rate in construction was 13.3 per 100,000 workers in 1996. In contrast with that figure, the HSA (1999) has reported a rate of 8 fatalities for 100,000 workers for the Republic of Ireland in 1996. Although under the European average of fatalities, Ireland still shows a higher incidence than countries as France, the United Kingdom or Spain (see table 1).
Fatality Rate per 100,000 workers

Table 1: Fatality rates for selected EU Member States

Construction-related fatalities in the UK

Brabazon et al. (2000) looked at the rate of fatalities between 1993 and 1998. For the primary building trades, the rate was 1 in 11,000 per year. This is below the HSE intolerable risk criterion of 1 in 1000 and HSE guideline of 1 in 10,000. However, scaffolding trades (1 in 5,400), roofing trades (1 in 3,800), steel erectors, bar bending and structural trades (1 in 3000) were above the HSE's guideline.

Brabazon et al. (2000) noted that since the Construction Design and Maintenance Regulations were introduced in the UK in 1994, the overall fatality rate had decreased by 10%. However the downward trend in the number of injuries on construction sites, is now slowing.

Davies & Tomasin (1996) reported that 70-80% of all fatalities in the UK each year is attributed to falls. Falls from one level to another, falls on the same level and plant machinery and structures falling and striking, crushing or burying people were accounted for that percentage. On the other hand, when considering only the category "falls of people," 52% out of the 681 construction-related deaths between 1981 and 1985 were in this category.

Construction Related Fatalities in Northern Ireland

92 fatalities in the construction industry occurred in the North of Ireland between 1980 and 1998. 47 of these fatalities were due to falls. Other common causes of fatalities were due to vehicles in movement (15 fatalities), impacts or being struck (12), electrocution (9) and trespassing (5). In comparison with the others, the above figure for falls represents 51% of all the fatalities in that period.

Table 2 represents fatality rates per 100,000 workers for the years between 1997 and 2000. The table compares statistics between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (HSE-NI, 2001).
Year NI UK
1997/1998 4.0 5.7
1998/1999 3.5 4.4
1999/2000 13.2 5.3

Table 2: Comparison of Rate of Fatalities for NI & UK during 1997-2000 per 100,000 workers

Over the past three years 11 fatalities in the construction have occurred in the North of Ireland (HSE-Northern Ireland, 2001). The location of these fatalities breaks down as shown in table 3.

Construction Activity Fatalities
Small Housebuilder 3
Small "other " sites 6
Road works 1
Medium Sized General Contractor 1

Table 3: Construction activity resulting in fatalities in Northern Ireland during 1980-1998

Construction Related Fatalities in Ireland

In spite of regulatory activity and social partner initiatives, the number of fatalities related to construction in Ireland has generally increased since the 1990's (HSA, 2000). This increase has taken place against a background of rapid expansion in the construction industry. Since 1992 the numbers involved in the construction industry has more than doubled to 166,300 in 2000 (Construction Industry Review, 2001).

During the period 1991-1999 a total of 125 construction related fatalities occurred across all work sectors in the Republic of Ireland (HSA, 2001). These fatalities accounted for 22.4% of the total work related fatalities across all sectors during that time period. The year on year figures are shown in table 4.

Year 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 Total
Total Work Related Fatalities 73 46 64 50 78 59 48 70 69 557
Total Fatalities in Construction 10 12 11 10 13 14 15 22 18 125

Table 4: Number of fatalities in the construction Industry 1991-1999. Republic of Ireland

The most common cause of fatalities to workers in the construction sector over the past nine years were falls from heights (49.6%). Broken down, this figure reflects falls from or through roofs (17.6%), ladders (12.0%), scaffolds (11.2%), openings or stairways (4.8%), and others (4.0%).

International Construction Related Fatalities due to Falls from heights

Berg (1999) attributes falls as the leading cause of deaths in construction worldwide. Berg states the percentage of fatalities from falls on German construction sites accounts for 50% of all fatalities in that work sector.

Cattledge et al. (1996) analyzed construction fatality rates in the United States between 1980 and 1989. They found that 49.6% of all occupational related fatalities due to falls occurred on construction sites. Also in America, McVittie (1995) compared the percentage of fatalities from falls to a different elevation on construction sites in Ontario (Canada) and the United States. In Ontario, between 1988 and 1992, 40% of all fatalities on building sites were due to falls, while that figure was of 30% for the United States for the period between 1985 and 1989.

In Asia, Byung Yong Jeong (1998) reported on construction related fatalities in South Korea. This study showed that falls from heights accounted for 42% of all construction related fatalities between 1991 and 1994. Tam and Fung (1998) report the fatality rate among construction workers in Hong Kong during 1985 and 1994 was 86.8 per 100,000.


Approximately fifty percent of construction fatalities have been attributed, in a wide range of studies, to falls from heights. Furthermore, scaffolders, roofers, steel and structural trades have a high risk of fatal accident, though fatalities occur across a wide range of construction occupations. The statistics also show that fatalities are spread across housing construction and general contracting, large and small companies (though much of the industry is made up of small subcontractors) and in both urban and rural regions.

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