Kirkcaldy Sherriff Court heard a particularly sad case recently that underlines the need for adequate fencing. Don’t get me wrong any work place death is awful but somehow the end that met an 83 year old man in January 2015 struck a cord with me.
Houses were under construction in Kirkcaldy’s Chapel Level. John Philbin was suffering from a number of age related illnesses when he strayed onto the site. There was no-one there due to the holidays. he fell into an excavation that had filled with water and drowned.
HSE presented evidence that the firm in charge, Sandford Park Ltd, had not erected a sufficient fence and they were fined £110,000. A spoke person said,’We accept that there was a failure here for which we apologise unreservedly.’
The Lesson Not the Hindsight
When we look at site security we tend to dwell on thieves and older kids. Both these groups climb. If it is felt that they would be difficult to stop attention turns to securing valuables by removal or placing secure storage. It is easy to miss the fact that someone like Mr Philbin may be vulnerable and as a result be at risk of hazards unlikely to affect a more robust person. All it took was a water filled excavation.
My role in health and safety is not a precise science. It can’t be, it is a blend of personal experience, training and law. A precise science is engineering for example. That bridge has to be able to carry X weight, needs to be X long and X wide. In addition it has to be X high over whatever it is clearing. That is maths, plus a range of other talents. As I am not tethered by those rules I say, gently, I am sorry but age counts when it comes to health and safety.
I was looking at the fatality list for 2015/2016. There seemed to be a large number of the 40 plus age group represented. So I counted them. Out of the total number of employees killed that audited year (128) 89 were over the age of 40. I would like to make it clear that few were early 40s. The following year, the latest we have the figures for, showed a total of 94 employees ( including self employed) killed, 65 of which were over the age of 40.
Statistics Can Say What You Want Them Too
Well first I have to say this was a quick scrolling count. I didn’t add people of exactly 40 because I wanted to keep that under 40 category clearly separate. I simply rolled the names up and jotted the ages down. The HSE figures include members of the public killed as a result of workplace incidents so I tried to rule them out.
People would point out that some industries have way more 40s, 50s and 60s involved than younger workers, I accept that. They could also say that any health and safety factors that lead to older workers being killed could have been the fault of younger workers. I would have to go through case for case as they were investigated on that one. However, as I said mine is not a precise science. From my own and others experience I suspect we are kidding ourselves a bit. The figures are not good.
Health and Safety at Work Article
healthandsafetyatwork.com is a source of information I go to often. In December 2015 Bridget Leathley wrote a brilliant article on the subject of risk and older workers.
The peak risk group is apparently 35-54 years and she says correctly that they are the bulk of the workforce in many occupations. She goes through all the factors, pros and cons, of older workers in great detail and I commend her. On the plus side older workers often have a good grasp of their work and what it entails. They have survived that long so they must know something and they adapt well to changes in physical ability. On the negative side they might not always toe the safety line, they can be over confident and miss the more subtle instructions when undergoing health and safety training.
Driving occupations were a good example. Older drivers have experience but their reaction times are slower than younger ones. They tend to compensate for this by slowing down and in an emergency they might not be lightening, however, the actions they take are more likely to be accurate and best for the situation.
In an age of longer life and comparatively better health, not to mention some woeful international scamming older, people are likely to be working beyond the retirement age so the above is good news?
The Anecdotal Evidence
I believe there is a political reason for promoting the plus side of older people working. I’m not saying it is all cynical. Many people hate retiring. It can bring on social isolation and we all know of great people who have been pushed out by the mandatory age limit only to then go into sharp decline.
No, my suspicion is that in order to justify ever increasing the pension entitlement age the risks in the workplace could be downplayed. I’m in my early 50s. I know how things have changed for me. I carry injuries from the decades that have gone before. I know other people well, all in heavy industry, all will say the same.
A Simple Scenario and You Judge
I know a guy who was really quick with his hands, quite agile and who is still above average in strength. He has worked shifts most of his life, particularly night shifts. He now sports damage to both knees that results in rather unpredictable pain. He should wear supports when working in order to avoid the ‘twinges’ that can make him instantly forget what he is doing all be it for a second. He wears glasses grudgingly having been lucky enough to reach 51 before he had to wear them regularly.
He has hip pain on the left side, neck pain if he has to look down for any length of time, his fitness is above average for his age but still he is carrying some weight and his diet is poor. He has to work and he has to compete with younger people for that work so he doesn’t mention most of the above. Another issue is he used to work a night shift and then come home, gather the family and head into the outdoors for a few hours before snatching a couple of hours rest. Now he is the first to privately admit he is wrecked by night work and hates to get less than 6 hours sleep in the day.
So ask yourself with the changes, the natural changes age has brought this guy, is it any surprise that so many older workers make up those horrible figures?
Anecdotal Evidence, Imprecise?
I recently looked at the cases of several workers injured and killed from this age group and found that several had undisclosed issues that might have contributed to a tragic incident.
Eyesight, hearing, balance, poorly managed blood pressure, and some cognitive impairment. I don’t want to pile on the misery but for example look at dementia. I have known people have to leave jobs when they were diagnosed. The progression of these illnesses can be gradual though so how long did they unknowingly suffer? How long were they forgetting things? How long were they increasing their risk at work?
Our Own Worst Enemy
The guy I gave a list of ailments for no longer works with heavy machinery. I can be frank about his normal issues with age because he said it was okay to do so. Even now in the workplace he doesn’t mention any of the creeping effects of time and tide. Also why would he? In most industries everyone is in the same boat and in the older generation at least there are some vestiges of ‘can’t complain.’ Yet in 10 years? What about 15 plus years from now. How will he deal then?
Another reason to minimise age effects on top of the obvious desire to appear efficient and dependable at work is self worth. I knew another man, mid 50s, newly retired with a good pension who died while turning his trailer around. He had been advised by his son that he would be there in half an hour to help but the man went to drag the thing around in a tight circle unaided. He had a heart attack. I could go on, but it comes down sometimes to pride. If you were able to do a task 10 years ago it is a hard thing to admit that the passing decade has left you less capable. You can laugh at walking football if you like yet it was invented for a reason. It came into being because of the same issues that killed the man with the trailer.
Not All Doom and Gloom?
Bridget Leathley is right throughout her article. She quotes exhaustively from HSE data and I find no fault with her assertions. Older people make up an increasing percentage of the workforce and are invaluable. We are living longer, we are a force to be reckoned with. We adapt to our changing physical abilities and get on with the job.
All I am saying is there is, in my opinion, an additional lesson to be learned from the statistics when compared with years of experience. Look after yourselves, be aware that you don’t move as quick as you did. Allow yourselves to take a physical back seat sometimes. Let a younger one climb on the roof or down the hole if you get the chance. Look back on your working life and know yourself. You have nothing to prove. You are there working when so many others have quit. Take pride in that.
From a critical standpoint. Times change, health and safety can be finicky but it is based on tragedy. If there is new equipment make sure you know it well. If there is a new way of safe working try it and give it a chance. Finally, if you get ill and it will affect your work be honest with yourselves and your employer. Better to swallow a bit of pride and take the financial hit rather than end up as one of those damn statistics.
That is a bold statement and to be honest I would accept arguments on other cases without much protest. For me, the worst health and safety fail that looked safe happened to Archie Tyler in 2001.
Mr Tyler was a watershed maintenance worker in the Bronx, New York. This 43 year old guy was dispatched with colleagues to the Jerome Park Reservoir. Jerome Park is in the Bronx and the reservoir is about a football field in size. It was built in 1906 as part of the water supply system for the New Croton Aqueduct.
By the time Mr Tyler arrived on that awful day the water was about 2 feet deep and it was seen as a risk. Not that it seemed a risk to the workers. The concern was that mosquitoes would breed and spread the West Nile River Virus. At 08.30 am the three man crew took to a small boat and paddled out to where the central drain was located. This had become clogged with debris and needed clearing. Mr Tyler got out of the boat and using a rake began to move the obstruction.
The drain, which had no grating, led to a 20 inch pipe. Once it was cleared the water surged into the new opening.
So there was the scene. Mr Tyler was held by his colleagues as the pressure tried to force him into the pipe. What could they do? They were in a boat and could lend no purchase, the bottom of the reservoir was algae covered and slippery.
Fire service personnel found Mr Tyler’s body when they accessed the drain via a maintenance hatch. He had been sucked down 15 feet and then into a connecting pipe, he had then been dragged 200ft until his body was lodged at a bend.
Union local President Ed Bennett said, ‘ If you saw the drain and the water, you really wouldn’t expect that cleaning the drain could put your life at risk. Still, DEP ( Department of Environmental Protection) had a responsibility to evaluate the job for any possible hazards, which could have prevented this tragedy.’
The Tragic Fact: Water, Fire, Weight, Height and Electricity Kill
It is the terrible consequence of being taken into that pipe that haunts me a little bit. I am not going to speculate on exactly what happened after Mr Tyler went under. I have looked for the findings of the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau investigation and I cannot locate it online. At the time the local DEP were criticised for not providing a tripod support for harnesses and for providing no information about the risks involved ahead of time. I can’t comment on if they were finally found at fault. I can say that in 2 foot of water nothing usually looks dangerous.
Now I have heard this story of course my approach would be cautious. Unfortunately that is how health and safety has progressed. Our own safety has often been assured because of people like Archie Tyler. Honestly speaking? If I had been on that crew on that day in 2001, I might have been the one with the rake, all the while thinking, ‘ This won’t take long.’