Health, safety and Well-being in Construction – Construction Health Hazards

Clare Richardson CMIOSH

Over the years that I have worked in health and safety (20+), there has been huge advances in the management of both safety and health. On reflection, more so in safety than health. However, for many organisations health now has equal priority on their agenda and it is not uncommon to provide occupational health services, wellbeing activities, mental health awareness and even mental health first aiders.

Construction dust hazard

Much like safety though, it is an ongoing journey and we still come across situations where construction sites do not fully manage exposure to health hazards such as dust, noise and vibration. This results in workers’ health being harmed. HSE statistics in this area provide evidence (if needed) to show that more still needs to be done.

Take a look at a few sobering key health statistics for Great Britain [2016/17]:

  • 3 million working people suffering from work-related illness,
  • 2,595 mesothelioma deaths due to past asbestos exposures (2016),
  • 144 workers killed at work (2017/18),
  • 609,000 injuries occurred at work according to the labour force survey,
  • 70,116 injuries to employees reported under RIDDOR,
  • 2 million working days lost due to work related illness and workplace injury,
  • £14.9 billion estimated costs of injuries and ill health from current working conditions (2015/16).

http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics

In my experience when risk assessment control methods are not fully implemented, it is not because people disregard the risks, it’s more often that they lack awareness or training. Thus, when inevitably at some point they are asked to be efficient and work smarter, it results in short cuts! We regularly hear from the workers “it’s only a 5-minute job” they do not fully appreciate that the 5-minute jobs adds up over a career.  The latency period of health conditions being recognised and the time lag from initial exposure, goes some way to explaining why the harm is not obvious/understood. Often individuals do not make the link between construction health hazard exposure and ill health conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, carpel tunnel, vibration white finger and noise induced hearing loss or deafness. These ill health conditions are not as many think ‘one of those things’ from getting older but most likely will have been caused from occupational exposure many, many years earlier. This means we are potentially losing valuable experience from our industry too early as the individuals cannot continue their work. Or sadly when they retire, rather than enjoying the time that they have worked hard all their lives for, retirement is dogged with ill health affecting both them and their families. Statistics inside any organisation that has maintained records will show how Employer’s Liability insurance claims have increased as the law catches up and allows employees to hold their employers to account for failing to look after their welfare.

So, what can we do to avoid this cycle of illness and manage the health hazards? Simply, the industry and its leaders have to recognise the scale and seriousness of the issues and start to follow the hierarchy of control with elimination being the key. This should start at the design phases. I will look at safety and health by design in my next blog.

A change in culture where exposure to health hazards and the associated ill health conditions needs to be fully understood by all those working in the industry throughout the construction lifecycle from designers through project managers to site managers and workers.  As with any change in culture this will take time and requires a range of approaches.

The Health in Construction Leadership Group www.healthinconstruction.co.uk is trying to unify the industry in its approach to worker health protection with the adoption and implementation of best practise initiatives. This is much needed as the influence of clients and major contractors can help to set the tone and raise the common standards and working methods.  However, this top down approach is slow in building a continuously improving safety cycle, and I believe we need to be training and raising the awareness of those being exposed. I am convinced that individuals will not knowingly harm themselves if they fully understand the link between health hazard exposure and ill health conditions.  If it was possible to capture those young new workers who think they are invincible before they are exposed (When they first join our industry) by providing them with information, instruction and training it need not pass to the next generation. If as managers and industry bodies, we do not offer the safeguards we are legally obliged to provide on risks to health as we do with safety, we will be failing to invest in the protection of our future workforce and storing up further problems for our families and successive generations.

One tool that can support the range of activities required is the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS) course Certificate in Controlling Health Risks in Construction. This could really help to plug the gap in raising the knowledge and awareness of those who need to control health hazards at a site level and those exposed to health hazards to prevent workplace ill health.

Gateway HSW Consultants are approved training providers for the BOHS course and have availability on courses in October and November – please get in touch for further details: Office@gatewayhsw.co.uk