Lessons in EHS History: Constructing the Olympic Games

The Olympics have grown tremendously in size over the years since they first began. In the present day, preparing for the Olympics is a massive undertaking for any host country. The construction required to host the Olympics includes building sports venues, hotels, roads, and other major infrastructure – all for several weeks of Olympic sports. With the world’s eyes on that country, and the pressure to outdo previous host countries on everyone’s minds, the stakes are high, the projects are complex, and the timelines are tight. All of these factors pose a potential threat to worker safety and good EHS practices. In this month’s edition of Lessons in EHS History, we take a look at the evolution of the Olympics and its environmental, health and safety record.

The Origins of the Olympics

The first modern day Olympic Games were held in 1896, when less than 300 participants (all of whom were men) competed in front of an estimated crowd of more than 60,000. The event was organized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had been founded two years earlier by Pierre de Coubertin. He was inspired by the ancient Olympic Games held in Olympia, Greece. According to historical records, the first Ancient Olympic Games took place in 776 BC – to salute the Games’ origins, the first Summer Olympics were held in Athens, Greece.

The Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece on April 5, 1896. The first modern day Olympic Games.

It is difficult to comment on the health and safety record of those early years, as companies didn’t have the same kinds of EHS standards as we do today, and reporting requirements were not nearly as comprehensive. However, a quick look at the U.S. construction industry in the early 1900s can provide some clues as to how dangerous a construction job of this size would have been. In a 1907 article titled “Making Steel and Killing Men,” a researcher named William B. Hard estimated that each year out of a workforce of about 10,000 approximately 1,200 men were killed or severely injured (12%). Based on these and other accounts it certainly seems likely that, regardless of where in the world the Olympic Games were held, their construction would have resulted in many fatalities.

Fast Forward to the Present

Sochi 2014 was surrounded by much controversy. One concern was the environmental impact, which included toxic waste dumps in rivers and irreversible damage to ancient ecosystems.
Photo taken on Feb 2, 2014 – Reuters-Kai Pfaffenbach

From humble beginnings, the Olympic Games have grown to about 10,500 competitors from 204 nations at the 2012 Summer Olympics (Winter Olympics are generally smaller). Despite being an enormous construction project, the London 2012 Games boasted the safest construction in recorded history, with 62 million man-hours, more than 46,000 workers involved, and ZERO fatalities. The Sydney 2000 and Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games resulted in just one recorded fatality each.

Unfortunately, not all Olympic Games in recent years have such encouraging records. The Greece 2004 and Beijing 2008 Games resulted in over 10 fatalities each and dozens more injuries; many of these were immigrant workers who did not receive proper safety training. Similarly, the construction of last month’s games held in Sochi resulted in both tragic fatalities (some estimates put this number at around 50, though this is difficult to confirm) and devastating consequences to the surrounding environment.

Looking to the Future: The Moral of the Story

Let’s make the Olympic legacy a safe one!

As an international community, we have learned so much about best practices in EHS since the 1896 Olympics. There are a wealth of international standards available, and perhaps we should be requiring Olympic host countries to be certified to those standards.

Ultimately, it is up to each individual host country to protect the health and safety of the workers involved in its Olympic build. However, it is also up to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award the honor of hosting the Olympic Games to countries that can demonstrate their commitment to a safe, environmentally friendly Olympic construction. London proved it was possible to create a successful and safe Olympics with zero construction fatalities – all future Olympic host countries should be held to the same standard.

The International Olympic Committee has called on the general public to submit opinions regarding the “Olympic Agenda 2020” – this agenda covers items such as bidding, sustainability and legacy, and Olympic Games management. The deadline for submissions is April 15, 2014. Ask the IOC to protect safe work conditions and workers’ rights by requiring bidding countries to prove their ability to achieve a construction with no fatalities and minimal environmental impact. Email Olympicagenda2020@olympic.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *