The next world safety at work day will take place on April 28th. In preparation, three researchers have explored the evolutions that impacted safety at work in the French construction industry. They share with us an analysis of the major changes that have taken place since 1905.
Why did you decide to study safety at work in the construction industry?
The construction industry has always been prone to accidents. In addition, the industry is facing many technological and organizational changes. Construction projects are carried out more and more on a case by case basis with the use of temp workers and subcontractors (uberization of work).
How was your study carried out?
Our research analyzed professional newspaper archives (Le Moniteur du Bâtiment et des Travaux Publics) dating back to 1905. The newspaper was digitized in 1997. Before that, we consulted paper records found in the French National Library. The study examined archives from 1905 to 2011 and the process took us five years. We worked on statistical data collected on the basis of keywords such as "accident" and "safety at work". This enabled us to identify predominant themes. We didn't include "health at work" because it's a recent concept that emerged due to problems such as asbestos and fatigue at work.
According to theme of safety at work, how can we classify more than a century of construction work?
Three major periods were each marked by their own ideologies and thought processes. In 1891, a law was enacted on the principle of inexcusable mistakes, which excluded the responsibility of individuals. This lasted until after the war. During this time, accidents at work were dealt with in legal and insurance terms via private insurance or if the accident was qualified as inexcusable, then it was dealt with in front of a judge.
Starting in 1945, the state social security system began to overtake the role of private insurers. At the same time, safety at work began to be dealt with in technical and professional terms with the creation of a database of scientific knowledge on the matter and an evolution in terms of professional practices.
From 1970 to today, accidents at work are the responsibility of companies and their private insurance.
Accidents at work were thus treated as being everyone's responsibility (both employer and employee). This period was marked by the creation of safety at work managers and medical positions dedicated to safety at work, which led to a professionalization in how accidents were managed. From 1970 to today, accidents at work are the responsibility of companies and their private insurance. At the same time, processes were implemented to evaluate accidents and provide accurate reporting. This enabled a cost determination for accidents.
However, we must note that the three periods are interconnected and all approaches continue to be in play. Social security cooperates with private insurances. Legal standards are mixed with company safety standards, which also include policies in terms of management and accounting for safety incidents. Recently, we have seen renewed affirmation of individual responsibility by both employers and employees.
What's your analysis of the current situation?
We are in a period that emphasizes an employee's individual responsibility. "You are responsible and have to be an actor for your safety!" This is the primary message being communicated. Of course, when accidents happen there is an evaluation from all perspectives to understand the origin of the accident. However, current evolutions such as subcontracting by subcontractors and the advent of uberization leave us with many questions in terms of responsibility.
There is a real mix between legal, company and individual responsibility. Unfortunately, workers are often very far removed from the realms of decision-making in terms of safety at work policies. In addition, the growth of independent workers is also forcing us to consider how to ensure their voices are heard.
How can the results of this study be extended to help understand and advance the status of independent workers at companies such as Deliveroo or Uber?
This study enabled us to confirm that since the 1950s there has be substantial progress in terms of accidents at work in the construction industry. The number of accidents has been divided by 10. However, we also note that the growth of uberized work is increasing this risk.
There is a need for a new national framework. Who is responsible? Who pays after an accident? It's not a matter of calling for increased regulation. But there has to be a framework that manages relationships between companies, unions and independent uberized workers. We have to ensure there are protective and preventive measures for all workers.