Construction Accidents: Clarify What Is Behind Spate of Casualties

Accidents in which workers become casualties at construction sites continue to occur. Could this be the result of labor shortages and long working hours? The central government and the construction industry should hurry to strengthen safety measures and improve the working environment.

At a building construction site in the Yaesu district in Tokyo, a steel beam weighing about 15 tons that was being hoisted by a large crane fell about 20 meters. The accident occurred while the steel beam was being fixed to the building’s framework, and it is reportedly possible that work to temporarily hold it in place was inadequate.

Two of the five men working on the steel beam died and the other three were seriously injured in the accident. A joint venture between major general contractors Obayashi Corp. and Taisei Corp. was in charge of the construction work, and the five men were employees of a secondary subcontractor.

The site is located in a redevelopment area in front of JR Tokyo Station. If the steel beam had fallen onto the roadway or sidewalk nearby, it could have caused even greater damage. The hope is that the police will continue to investigate what was wrong with the safety measures and work procedures.

In July, eight people, most of whom were workers, were killed or injured when a girder for an elevated highway fell in Shizuoka City. And in May, one person was killed and another was injured when a crane overturned in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo.

In recent years, construction investment has been increasing due to redevelopment projects in urban areas and other factors, even while the number of workers has been decreasing and the workforce has also been aging.

Working overtime is common at construction sites in order to meet completion deadlines, and annual working hours in the industry are as much as 20% longer than the average for all industries. Also, as wage standards are low, there is a vicious cycle in which younger workers eschew such employment.

These circumstances could increase workers’ fatigue and lead to a shortage of personnel needed to ensure safety. To prevent accidents, it is essential to secure manpower, provide technical training and eliminate overwork.

Starting in April next year, laws related to work style reform will be applied to the construction industry, tightening regulations on overtime. The laws are expected to help reduce the workload of construction workers. However, the application of the laws would do more harm than good if it accelerates a labor shortage at construction sites and safety measures are neglected as a result.

From now on, it is important to promote operations efficiently within the prescribed working hours. To this end, it is also essential to promote digitization, for example, by utilizing a system to share information on work processes and materials at work sites.

To solve the labor shortage, it will be necessary to improve the treatment of workers. The central government is considering the introduction of a system that would allow authorities to give administrative guidance in cases in which subcontracted workers are paid unreasonably low wages, for example. It is hoped that such efforts will also be facilitated.

Safety must not be neglected in the pursuit of low construction costs and quick completion. Clients and contractors must understand the idea of reasonable construction costs and sufficient construction periods, and cooperate accordingly.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 22, 2023)