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Workplace Accidents Skyrocket on Anti-Union Construction Sites

Taj Ali

EXCLUSIVE: Astonishing Unite the Union research can reveal that accident rates in un-unionised HS2 construction firms are more than three times the number than at unionised Hinkley Point C, despite having four times the combined workforce.

Credit: Getty / Akacin Phonsawat

Non-unionised HS2 construction companies in London have accident rates more than three times higher than unionised Hinkley Point C, Unite, the UK’s construction union, has this morning revealed. There have been 158 accidents on HS2 London sites since January 2023 but just 51 at the much larger Hinkley site. The difference is even more glaring when the much higher number of construction workers at Hinkley Point C, which has a workforce of around 11,000, is taken into account.

The combined workforces of HS2 joint ventures Skanska/Constain/Strabag (SCS), which is constructing tunnels to Euston station, and Balfour Beatty VINCI SYSTRA (BBVS), which is constructing the Old Oak Common station, are around a quarter of Hinkley’s.

A freedom of information request from Unite showed that SCS recorded 114 accidents or near misses from January to August 2023. BBVS recorded 44 during the same period. In contrast, at Hinkley Point C, which is unionised, there were just 51 recorded accidents or near misses from January to August.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham told Tribune: ‘The key difference between SCS’ and BBVS’ safety records and Hinkley Point C’s is that the HS2 joint ventures are union busters and Hinkley Point C is not. SCS and BBVS refuse to allow Unite on their sites and do not have union safety reps, who play a unique role in protecting workers and preventing accidents. Hinkley Point C, meanwhile, works with trade unions and has safety reps.’

In 2021, the union highlighted reports of serious accidents at the non-unionised sites. A lorry overturned into a ditch, a skill saw blade came off its mooring and shot across the site, a hammer broke a worker’s wrist and a digger bucket hit a worker’s foot. Several of these incidents were judged to be so serious that they resulted in safety shutdowns, creating delays on the project. If HS2 and the joint venture companies are serious about improving safety, says Graham, ‘they need to immediately end union busting and allow Unite to organise workers and elect safety reps.’

Unite national officer for construction, Jerry Swain, told Tribune: ‘SCS and BBVS workers are continually raising with Unite their real and justifiable concerns that there will be a fatality on site if these joint ventures are allowed to continue with their cavalier attitude towards workers’ safety. Recently, we received a report of a large section of steel being dropped by a crane at Old Oak Common, and as one worker put it, “It was only by the grace of God no one was killed.”’

Swain previously highlighted how workers employed at the Skanska-Costain-Strabag JV HS2 sites had been ‘robbed’ of overtime rates, death and serious injury cover and paid holidays. He also said that the workers were paid through payroll companies. Unite members went on to protest outside Euston station over the issue. Building firms Skanska and Constain have also previously admitted to unlawfully blacklisting trade union members and denying them work.

Fully trained union safety reps play a crucial role in preventing accidents and injuries. Critically, workers know that they can speak to the reps about their safety concerns without fear of reprisal. Workers also have access to union support and can access separate information not supplied by the company, which is also very valuable in helping them fulfil their role.

As a result of the latest safety revelations Unite is further stepping up its work with its members on the two HS2 joint ventures and will be applying additional pressure to secure genuine access to the sites.

‘Hinkley should be a beacon, showing what can be achieved by working with Unite and its safety reps,’ says Jerry Swain. ‘Instead, we have two joint ventures refusing to give unions access to workers and putting their desire to bust the trade unions above the safety of those working on site.’

HS2 is one the largest building projects in Europe, costing British taxpayers significant sums of money. The Government has a major responsibility here to ensure its public procurement policy prioritises companies that recognise trade unions and treat workers well. This race to the bottom isn’t inevitable. The Government can and should intervene to ensure its procurement policy promotes good working practices and raises standards across the economy.

A HS2 Ltd spokesperson said: ‘The safety of our workforce and the public is HS2’s number one priority. We have an open and transparent reporting culture, and all health and safety incidents are fully investigated, key learnings and actions for HS2 and our contractors identified, and these are then shared across the project. It is misleading to compare different projects’ accident rates because it is likely they have different reporting procedures. Everyone working on HS2 has the right to go home unharmed, and we continue to work with and challenge our contractors to provide the highest levels of health and safety standards.’