Too many occupational accidents occur in the building sector. We accompanied labour inspector Mikk to a construction site.
Monday morning. Labour inspector Mikk walks towards the car with a helmet, phone, tablet, and folder in his hand. Before heading to the construction site, he drives past a building where the Labour Inspectorate had to seize activities. ‘It has asbestos (a naturally occurring mineral that is dangerous for humans when inhaled – ed.) inside. The workers were not wearing safety shoes or helmets, there were no required masks, and the entire area was not fenced off,’ observes Mikk, listing a number of reasons why the work had been stopped the previous day.
As the labour inspector stops in the parking lot in front of the inspected construction site, he takes his phone from his pocket to record a dangerous situation. ‘The worker wearing a vest who is on the roof does not have a safety harness on.’ Here, his attentive eye has already caught a potentially hazardous situation. He explains that during monitoring or unannounced inspections, possible mistakes can be seen from afar. This is the beginning of an inspection which is officially called supervision proceedings. The purpose of the inspection is to draw attention to shortcomings and to provide clarifications, not to punish anyone.
Walking toward the gates of the construction site, we notice that there are no contact numbers displayed next to the entrance, so the inspector starts to walk around the building. He does not have to go far, as he finds an opening in the fence surrounding the site just around the corner, with footprints visible in the snow. ‘These things really shouldn't happen, because outsiders can get in.’ The inspector is not satisfied with the situation!
Hello! Labour Inspectorate!
When entering the construction site, we can hear drilling, smell dust, and have to mind our every step to avoid tripping over something. Actually, the work site should be clean and tidy so that there is no tripping hazard. Going up the stairs, the labour inspector reaches the office where the site manager is sitting. ‘Hello! Mikk from the Labour Inspectorate! We came to check your site, see how things are going here,’ he introduces himself. The site manager replies: ‘Gradually. We are slowly starting to get things going.’
Mikk proposes to take a look around the site, and they head to a worker on the first floor who is standing on the scaffolding with headphones on, drilling a hole in the wall.
The labour inspector introduces himself, talks to the builder, and lists the shortcomings: the scaffolding's railings are too low, the scaffolding should be closer to the wall, and the working area should be delimited, for example with safety tape.
The worker thinks a little and asks: ‘May I politely refuse?’ The labour inspector explains that, in order to ensure occupational safety, he cannot allow the work to continue in this way and provides alternative solutions that would make work safer.
The worker does not want to comply with the inspector's recommendations and asks: ‘But what will happen if I continue like this?’ Mikk concretely and calmly replies that the shortcomings must be eliminated or the work must be stopped. But the driller does not give up: ‘What if I were on a ladder?’ The inspector explains that a ladder is a tool for temporary work, and if such work is to be done on a ladder, it should be attached from below or above, and the worker in turn attached to the ladder with a harness.
The worker sighs, but asks: ‘But can't we just use common sense first and then check the rule book? I've been doing this job for four years in two countries and I'm still alive.’
Mikk answers that accidents can never be predicted and gives examples where overconfidence has led to sad consequences. For example, someone could accidentally bump into the scaffolding, causing the footing to wobble, and falling to the ground without a helmet could end very badly. If the scaffolding is not close enough to the wall, the worker can fall between the wall and the scaffolding when distracted. The inspector has almost 21 years of experience working in the building sector and is well aware of what is going on in construction. With his own eyes, he has seen a colleague fall from a height and die instantly because he did not use personal protective equipment as prescribed by the manual.
In the course of the conversation, even more is revealed and it turns out that the worker had not familiarised himself with the site's occupational safety plan when he came to the site for the first time, nor had he signed it.
Agreements are not kept
Mikk moves on with the site manager. ‘When we arrived, the two men installing roofing sheets on the terrace did not have their harness on,’ the inspector points out a shortcoming he had already noticed from the car window.
The worker who had been walking on the tin roof came down from the ladder at the inspector's order to put on the harness and secure himself.
Two men in yellow work clothes are on the open section of the roof, one of them on a ladder and the other a few metres higher in the roof area. The site manager asks one of the workers if he remembers their discussion from last Friday and the employee nods. On Friday, the site manager had ordered the man to use a safety harness, but despite this, nothing has changed. The worker who had been walking on the tin roof came down from the ladder at the inspector's order to put on the harness and secure himself.
Along the stairs, the inspector and the site manager reach the windows, where they can see a basket hanging in front of the glass and two workers working inside it. ‘They are wearing a harness, but it is not attached to the basket.’ Again, the labour inspector draws attention to a dangerous situation and indicates through the window to the workers so that the harness should be attached.
They part ways amicably
The inspector points out a few more shortcomings and then they move back into the office where they take a seat at the desk. ‘Could I have a look at last week's general inspection report?’ the inspector asks. He also reviews other documentation. The general inspection has not been performed by the site manager, but he claims that he checks safety every day. He shows that cameras have also been installed on the site, which can be used to check compliance with safety requirements.
When talking to the site manager, it turns out that he has not had any bad encounters with the Labour Inspectorate. ‘Yes, even if observations are made and shortcomings are recorded, I eliminate them and send pictures. That is totally okay. I can't ensure that there is nothing wrong in the building. We just hope that there are only a few mistakes,’ the site manager says. He knows that paying attention to shortcomings is very important for safety.
They wave to each other politely and the inspector walks back to his car.