Poles have streamed into the UK since their homeland joined the European Union. Many have found a good living, but others have lost their lives. Mark Leftly reports on what’s going wrong

Despite its gruesome title, there was good news in the Health & Safety Commission’s latest Statistics of Fatal Injuries. The report showed that in the past 12 months, 212 workers across British industry died in workplace accidents – the lowest number ever. This equates to 0.71 fatalities per 100,000 workers, which is the lowest in Europe, where the average is 1.1. And, importantly for a sector that has become tightly focused on improving its health and safety record, there was a breakthrough in construction. Here, deaths fell 14% to 59.

There is, though, a worrying piece of information in these figures: five of the construction workers who died were immigrants. That in itself isn’t so surprising, given that migrants make up 5% of the workforce. What is concerning is that all of them were from Poland.

After the 10 accession states joined the European Union in May 2004, Poland quickly became the key labour supplier to the UK construction industry. The Home Office estimated in the spring of this year that there were 13,500 Polish migrants working in the industry, 4500 more than came from Lithuania, its closest rival. This does not include the self-employed or those staying for less than 28 days.

The problem of keeping these people safe on site has been picked up by the Polish Federation, based in Hammersmith, west London. Jan Mokrzycki, the federation’s chairman, says he met the Health and Safety Executive a year ago to discuss this issue. In conjunction with the British Safety Council, he hopes to set up evening classes in the autumn that will help Polish workers to get their CSCS cards. However, Mokryzycki warns: “It is slightly frustrating because it is going slowly. The problem is finding people to give the lectures.”

At the same time, the federation has published 10,000 copies of a 36-page booklet that tells Poles how to live and work in the UK. This includes key phrases in English, advice on finding schools for their children, National Insurance numbers for themselves, and information on gaining a CSCS card. Mokryzycki says these are “going like wildfire” and is trying to secure funding for a larger booklet with a 20,000 print run.

It is understood that the HSE is working on plans to get information on English construction practices to workers before they leave Poland

Louise Brearly, head of the construction sector at the HSE, says that the Polish workers are most vulnerable during their first few weeks on site. She says: “It is people new to the workforce that are at greater risk, and migrants, by definition, are part of that.”

Although the HSE does not usually cater individually to the many nationalities entering the UK, it has written articles in Polish language newspapers and organised translation workshops for workers. It is also understood that the HSE is working on plans with CITB–ConstructionSkills to get information on English construction practices to workers before they leave Poland.

A visit to see the Poles on site makes it clear what a valuable asset they are. Malcolm Ward, a West Sussex area manager for ROK, has between four and 12 tradesmen from Poland working for his £1.6m-turnover maintenance division at any one time. He says: “The Polish guys are very hard working and very happy to be here.” But he adds that there are inevitable language problems. “Clearly there are issues with the Polish, so we tend to employ them in gangs of four. Two will always be good English speakers, so there is someone to translate.”

This means that any four Poles, who are provided with shared accommodation, can be divided into pairs to work on site, as long as at least one speaks good enough English. Sure enough, when Ward takes Building to meet Adam Szaba, 21, and Andrei Krakowski, 40, only the former speaks English, although he does so fairly fluently (see below).

They are working on a project in nearby Redhill, building a shed to decant items from a farm’s large garage. They will then demolish and rebuild the garage, which has been wrecked by subsidence. The farm’s owner skips over to praise the pair to Ward almost as soon as he arrives: “They’re so polite and get on with the job. They never ask for anything – when I asked them if they wanted a cup of tea they were very pleased,” she says.

In Poland health and safety doesn’t matter. In Poland nobody care until after an accident, then think they should have had the right shoes or hard hat

Adam Szaba, 21-year-old Pole

Ward is careful, of course, to ensure that the standards of the workers’ language and trade skills are high before they arrive. The recruitment is organised by a Polish contractor called Real-Construct, with which Rok has built up a relationship over the past two years. Although Szaba and Krokowski are well trained, the former admits standards are higher in the UK than his native land. “In Poland nobody care until after accident, then think should have had the right shoes or hard hat. Here, remember about shoes, remember about hard hat.”

Chris Zdebski, who is a completions manager for contractor Apollo London, has been in the UK since 2000, and talks with only the slightest hint of a Polish accent (see box, below). He has worked for the company since February, having previously run his own kitchen and bathroom refurbishment business. He checks that the maintenance work on a 367-unit social housing maintenance job in West Drayton, Middlesex, is up to scratch.

He says that he found Polish health and safety standards to be fairly high, but adds: “Over here people tend to obey the rules more. Polish people tend to stand up to all that they can. They feel that you can’t tell them things – that would be an insult.”

Arguably this stubbon streak could add to safety concerns, but nobody doubts the Poles work hard for their money, which is double or triple the rate for the same work in Poland. Zdebski adds that there is corruption and government abuse of tax law in Poland, further hitting the pay packets of the country’s workers.

The Polish who have entered the UK construction market seem to be considered decent and hard-working, and the case studies indicate that they’re grateful for their opportunities. It works well for both sides, so it’s time for all concerned to make sure that the health and safety statistic published last week is never repeated.