Fatal accident reignites debate over safety in construction

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A serious accident in November 2005, resulting in the death of six workers involved in the construction of a motorway in Andalusia, has led to a major debate on the relationship between occupational risk prevention and employment conditions in the Spanish construction sector. Trade unions called a protest work stoppage and have linked the high industrial accident rate in construction to the sector's high levels of subcontracting, temporary employment and overtime working.

On 7 November 2005, six workers died, two suffered serious injuries and one suffered slight injuries in an accident during the construction of a viaduct for the Mediterranean motorway in the municipality of Almuñécar, in the province of Granada, Andalusia. The accident occurred while the workers were placing a metal platform, 60 metres long by 12 metres wide, for the concrete formwork. The platform fell from a height of 50 metres, taking some workers with it and trapping others below it. The fact that the accident coincided with a change of shift probably prevented a greater catastrophe, because at that time (15.30) there were few workers on site. The ages of the six dead workers ranged from 19 to 44. Five of them were Portuguese nationals employed by a company based in that country (Douro Montemuro) subcontracted by a Spanish company, Estructuras y Montajes de Prefabricados, which was subcontracted in turn by a 'temporary union of companies' (Unión Temporal de Empresas, UTE) that was awarded the contract to build the motorway (this UTE is formed by the construction companies Azvi, Proder and Obras Subterráneas).

Trade union responses

The majority trade unions - the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) and the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) - claim that it would have been impossible for such an accident to occur if the appropriate safety and preventive measures had been put in place. Though they do not wish to discuss the specific causes of the accident until investigations into the event have concluded, the unions place it in the context of the production and industrial relations that are predominant in the Spanish construction sector, characterised by high levels of subcontracting (ES0212205F), temporary employment (ES0306105F) and overtime.

Despite calls by companies and the public authorities for calm, as an immediate response to the accident, UGT and CC.OO called a one-hour stoppage in protest at all construction sites in Andalusia and in the city of Granada on 9 November. The trade unions also announced that they will call for a meeting of the province's Industrial Accidents Commission (Mesa contra la Siniestralidad), because this is not the first accident that has occurred during the construction of this motorway. Granada is also one of the Spanish provinces with the highest accident rate (between January and October 2005 there were 26 deaths at work, 12 of them in the construction sector), and in October 2005 this had already led to a general strike in the construction sector under the slogan 'Granada against industrial accidents'. The unions organising this strike called for an end to 'excessive' subcontracting (which they believe should be limited to certain 'specialities' rather than entire construction projects), limits to overtime and more preventive measures.

The trade unions asked the Public Prosecutor's Office (Fiscalía) to carry out an urgent investigation into the November accident, and called for the creation of a special public prosecutor's office to investigate this type of accident. Furthermore, UGT and CC.OO agree that the resources of the Labour Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo) are clearly insufficient to fulfil its function of monitoring the construction sector. They have also made general criticisms of the rate of temporary employment, which is very high in the construction sector (nearly 60%).

Statements by companies

The main contractor companies involved in the accident (Ploder, Azvi and Obras Subterráneas) issued a statement claiming that they had a 'duly approved' safety plan, and that the platform that collapsed had passed all the relevant inspections. They also agreed to use all necessary means to clarify the causes of the accident. The company subcontracted to build the viaduct, Estructuras y Montajes de Prefabricados, states that it complied with all the safety and quality controls and has announced that it will start an investigation of the accident. Finally, the Portuguese company Douro Montemuro, subcontracted by Estructuras y Montajes de Prefabricados, stated that everything was in order on the site and that the company's actions were totally legal.

With regard to the criticism of subcontracting by the trade unions, the employers consider that this practice is absolutely necessary in the construction sector, and that the subcontracted firms are normally competent and safe. Furthermore, the employers do not agree that temporary employment influences industrial accidents, and argue that it is the type of activity and not the type of contract that determines the accident rate.

Position of the public authorities

Based on initial information from the Labour Inspectorate, sources at the Ministry of Labour (Ministerio de Trabajo) declared that all the subcontracted companies complied with all the safety regulations, and suggested that the accident could have been caused by 'material fatigue'. They also stated that none of the subcontracted companies had been reported for infringement of the Occupational Risk Prevention Law (ES0202210F). Nevertheless, the Ministry of Development (Ministerio de Fomento) announced the creation of a technical commission to determine why the safety mechanisms on the site failed, and to ascertain the employment situation of the workers.

In response to the trade unions, the Minister of Labour, Jesús Caldera, stated that a plan is already under way to reinforce the workforce of labour inspectors and assistant labour inspectors and bring its size up to the European Union average (ES0507102F). He also stated that Spanish labour law is very demanding and ensures that the company awarded a contract accepts the entire liability for risk prevention if it is not covered by the subcontracted firms. The Public Prosecutor, Cándido Conde-Pumpido, announced that in December 2005 he would appoint a delegate prosecutor to combat industrial accidents, who will coordinate the actions of the public prosecutor's office in this field across the whole of Spain.

Commentary

The accident in Granada has reopened the debate on industrial accidents (ES0507201N, ES0510102N and ES0503202N) in the Spanish construction sector, which employs 13% of the workforce and is responsible for 27% of the fatal accidents (excluding work-related traffic accidents). In all sectors of production, seven out of every 100,000 workers died in 2004, compared with 16 in the construction sector.

The accident in Granada is particularly significant because, apparently, all the companies involved were complying with their health and safety obligations. This suggests that — as the trade unions claim — fulfilment of the health and safety regulations is not sufficient to reduce the industrial accident rate in Spain, and that substantial changes must be made in production and employment conditions. In fact, more and more indicators point in this direction: a study by the National Institute for Safety and Hygiene at Work (Instituto Nacional de Seguridad e Higiene en el Trabajo, INSHT) for the period 1999-2002 states that the risk of accidents among workers on temporary contracts in the construction sector was three times that of workers on open-ended contracts. Furthermore, a study by the National Association of Accredited Preventive Bodies (Asociación Nacional de Entidades Preventivas Acreditadas, ANEPA), which represents many occupational risk prevention specialists, confirms that when the chain of subcontracting reaches the third level, the preventive mechanisms begin to fail (due to difficulties of coordination, decreases in the profit margin etc).

Parliament currently plans to pass a private bill to regulate subcontracting in construction, in order to limit the chain of subcontracts and to increase transparency so that it is clear who is responsible for the site. There was an unsuccessful attempt to pass a similar bill in 1998 when the trade unions put forward a 'popular legislative initiative' supported by over half a million signatures (ES9812193N), but it was rejected by the government of the time (ES0212103N). In April 2004, this initiative was presented again, also supported by over half a million signatures, and this time it was accepted as a private bill. However, since then this initiative has been postponed 26 times and at the time of writing (December 2005) has not yet been debated. This unusual situation may be a good indicator of resistance to the regulation of subcontracting in the Spanish construction sector, and indicates the power struggle between employers and trade unions in this key sector for Spain's current economic growth. (Josep Espluga, Department of Sociology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona)

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