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Why health and safety is so important in construction

Health and safety is a concern across all of the UK's industries, but it's of particular importance within the construction industry

Posted by Joe Lawson-West | August 18, 2017 | People, policy, politics, money

Health and safety are obvious concerns across all of the UK’s industries, but it’s of particular importance within the construction industry because it’s the UK industry with a fatality rate four times higher than the rate across all other industries (HSE fatal injuries report).

 An obvious assumption is that a vast industry such as construction, with its relatively larger number of employees, might naturally be expected to have a greater number of industry-related fatalities. However, this does not make fatalities acceptable and it still remains that the number of deaths in relation to the number of industry employees is grossly disproportionate: the construction industry employs 5% of the UK’s workers, yet the sector accounts for 10% of reported major injuries and a massive third of all fatal worker injuries each year. So what are the major problems here?

 High risk workplace, high risk work

 Whatever the aspect of construction – demolition, building, refurbishment, roadworks - construction sites present risks way beyond most other industry workplaces. Whilst no workplace has zero risk, there is an obvious and major difference between the risks presented at a construction worker’s place of work, in comparison with a finance or retail worker’s workplace.

 The fatal facts of on-site dangers

 The risks presented at construction sites are well documented, yet 39 workers on construction sites in the UK still died in 2012-13, with this number rising to 42 (2013-14) and 43 in 2015/2016.

 Whilst it’s generally considered that construction sites run by larger companies are less risky, as these are the corporations which can afford greater budgets for more rigorous health and safety measures and practices, the issues are still as relevant for smaller companies and smaller sites.

 In some cases, the risks are not just the same, but may actually increase as where there are fewer workers, there may be more ‘doubling up’ when it comes to work roles and less specifically designated health and safety personnel or even first aiders on-site.

 Areas of risk on-site are numerous and, whether the site is large or small, usually include risks from:

 ●     Working at height

Working at height has been the cause of almost half of the construction sector’s on-site deaths over the last 5 years. This includes the risk of working on scaffolding, a construction site activity which is a major risk factor.

 ●     Objects falling from height

Being struck by an object, including falling objects, accounted for 21 deaths across 2012-2017.

 ●     Moving vehicles

Although it can be relatively quick and simple to erect safety barriers to separate construction plant from pedestrians and workers, or traffic from roadside construction workers, there have been 21 deaths in the last 5 years. As well as representing almost 10% of all fatalities, the incidences of workers being struck by moving vehicles has risen sharply across 2016/17.

 ●     Getting trapped

Not just restricted to buildings going up and coming down, construction sites, particularly roadside and transport construction, usually involve the digging of trenches. All such sites have potential for structural collapse and workers becoming trapped, situations which have led to 28 worker deaths in the 5 years since 2012.

 ●     Equipment and tools

Equipment and tools offer triple trouble on construction sites: one risk is of wear and tear rendering them faulty and dangerous; another is of them being deployed or used wrongly and another is that even a relatively small piece of equipment, such as a handheld screwdriver, can cause real injury and even death if dropped from a height or left in a dangerous position.

 On-site activity leading to lifelong disability

 When it comes to the construction industry, the potential for life-long disability is also very high. An increasing number of disabilities are occurring as working in hazardous conditions, both currently and in the pre-health and safety era, are now starting to emerge:

 ●     Dust dangers and toxic threats      

Over time, working in dusty environments has lead to chronic conditions like occupational asthma and Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IFP), whilst exposure to specific dusts, such as deteriorated asbestos, has been proven to lead to fatal asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers, such as mesothelioma.

 In all, the construction sector accounts for 40% of deaths from occupational cancers, which are reported to be arising as the effects of exposure to toxic substances reveal themselves. These include substances common in the construction industry, such as asbestos, silica and even coal tars.

 Contact with dangerous, loose materials and substances can also cause visual problems and eye disorders including blindness, rendering workers unable to return to construction work, or even work at all.

 ●     Long term body problems

 HSE statistics demonstrate that across an average from 2011 to 2014, there are almost 100% more incidences of musculoskeletal disorders in the construction industry than other UK industries. These disorders include some long-term, permanently disabling conditions, with construction workers being particularly at risk of:

 ●     Manual handling injury

 Materials used on construction sites are robust by nature and from bags of cement and plaster, to bricks, piles and struts, moving heavy items, including equipment and clearing debris can cause problems both in the short term through accidental injury and long-term, through prolonged heavy lifting and poor positioning when manual handling of heavy items.

 ●     Vibration injury                    

 The long-term use of vibrating equipment is also being revealed as source of both short-term injury and chronic long-term musculoskeletal problems.

 ●     Sensory loss

 As well as the potential loss of sight from eye injury, exposure to prolonged, repetitive or sudden loud noise can also affect hearing, even resulting in permanent deafness.

Prevention, not problems

Addressing these problems isn’t just vital in order to protect personnel, it’s also important for construction companies. The health and safety of workers has implications not only for productivity and profitability, for example from the 1.7 million working days lost due to work-related illness and injury in 2014/15, but also because companies themselves risk being:

●     Fined by the Health and Safety Executive

●     Banned from working at all, through the issue of prohibition notices

●     Prosecuted and even convicted for negligence

●     Sued for accidents, death, injury and disability

 Additionally, non-compliance with guidelines and regulations or the ignoring of health and safety issues which leads to any of those actions above also significantly contributes to ruining a company’s reputation and the stripping of accreditations or memberships of leading industry bodies. So what steps should a construction company take, in appropriate response to the important issue of health and safety in the industry and in recognition of their need to protect employees?

 ●     Take advice: Ignorance of guidance and requirements is neither an excuse or reason for health and safety problems on-site: everyone in the construction industry needs to know and adhere to safe working practices. The UK Health and Safety executive has a wealth of guidance, whilst local councils and HSE representatives can also advise on relevant local issues.

●     Take steps: Thorough risk assessment is the first step in recognising what the risks on each construction site might be, whilst continuing to follow professional advice is also essential to ensure that no potential risk is forgotten or ignored.

●     Take action: A risk assessment has to be responded to with steps to actually manage the risks and minimise the potential health and safety problems they present to workers, by outlining preventative action. For example, including action being taken to separate workers from moving vehicles, for ensuring tools, equipment (including PPE safety equipment such as masks, visors and ear defenders) are checked and fit for purpose. For further information about construction site risk assessments, check out the SafeSite Facilities risk assessment template and guide.

●     Take time to communicate: putting steps into place to protect workers only goes so far, it’s also important to communicate to employees, shift and site managers what protocols and processes are and how they should be followed. This should also include emergency protocols in the event that an accident does occur on-site.

●     Take time to train: And sometimes, the best way to communicate procedures is to train employees in how to follow them. From the safe use of equipment, to working at height protocols, no worker (including temporary and subcontractors) should be undertaking a task without being trained to do so or without using the PPE equipment they have been provided with.

Finally, it’s down to the construction company – even if this is an individual construction professional working with a subcontractor for a day or two - to take full responsibility for the onsite safety. Every construction employer has a duty of care to employees (as well as the public) and should adhere to advice for safe working practice. In all cases, it is better to take responsibility than to be responsible for a life taken on site.

Further information on current health and safety in the construction industry is available from HSE construction workplace injury report. This report and additional HSE statistics are the sources for all statistics used in this article.

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