Fatal construction accident puts safety in focus

A deadly accident last week in western Japan is drawing criticism of lax construction-site safety across the country. The latest victim was hit by a falling steel pipe that workers had failed to secure. And it wasn't the first incident at that site.

The 26-year-old man in Wakayama city was on his way to work when the five-kilogram pipe fell 45 meters from the scaffolding and struck him on the head. News of his death has drawn national attention because a steel pipe had fallen from the site only four days earlier.

Safety at this construction site in Wakayama is under scrutiny. The building is a landmark in the city. 

Police said no one was injured in the first incident. The company had halted work temporarily to install safety nets and secure the pipes with ropes. Then, it happened again the day after work resumed, killing the young man.

Similar incidents across the country

There are 44 incidents recorded in Japan over the past 10 years of objects falling from construction sites, resulting in the deaths of 14 people. Falling steel pipes accounted for 10 of the incidents.

A slab of plaster board fell from a construction site in the city of Kagoshima in 2009, hitting two women and leaving them with bone fractures. In 2011 a falling steel pipe injured an elementary school student who was walking on the street below.

A map of construction-site accidents in Japan suggests the problem is widespread.

A grieving family

Three years ago in Tokyo, 77-year-old Kazuhiko Iimura was hit and killed by a falling steel pipe at a construction site in the Roppongi entertainment district.

His wife Fujiko said she vividly remembered how she felt that day when she heard about the fatal accident in Wakayama. She said she started trembling as it all came back to her.

Kazuhiko Iimura recalls how her husband died in 2016 after being hit by a falling pipe.

She had been walking ahead of him and suddenly turned around, feeling something wrong. She said she was there with him when it happened but there was nothing she could do.

"I tried to lift the pipe off him but it was very heavy," she said, adding that she was shocked to hear that another accident had occurred so soon after.

"I was devastated that an accident like this took the life of my loved one," said Iimura. "I regret that people haven't learned anything from this."

Fujiko Iimura lost her husband in a similar accident three years ago.

The manager of the construction site where her husband was killed was convicted of negligence causing death and given a suspended sentence.

Accident prevention

One construction company is hoping to prevent more accidents like these by using virtual reality technology to train workers. The trainees don VR goggles to experience what it's like to stand at the top of a construction site and feel the catastrophic effects of a misstep.

One company is using virtual reality to teach workers about safety.

Other companies are just emphasizing basics, like installing pylons, safety netting and ropes. A member of a contractors association says they remind workers every morning of the risks at the construction site, placing warning cones and barricades and deploying guards to guide people.

Fujiko Iimura says she hopes these efforts prevent another tragedy. She also says she wants public authorities to step up their focus on safety.

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