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Treating Health Like Safety #Constructionhealth

Business and industry have long paid more attention to the safety aspect of health and safety. The construction industry has seen a cultural shift in safety that has led to an 80% reduction in workplace fatalities over the last 40 years. There has been no such progress in Occupational Health.

Organisations including the Health and Safety Executive, have expressed concern that health is often treated as a secondary, less prominent issue. This is something that needs to change and the health needs in construction and other sectors, including manufacturing and industry, should be given greater focus.

Here are some striking statistics from the construction industry concerning health issues:

  • 75% of injuries are musculoskeletal in nature, the most common being damage to the lower back.
  • A third of construction workers are regularly put at risk due to elevated levels of noise that could impact hearing.
  • Two thirds of workers have to contend with vibration either from tools or machinery in the area they are working.
  • 15% of construction workers are regularly exposed to hazardous substances that can cause skin damage.
  • The construction industry accounts for over 40%of occupational cancer deaths and registrations, with the most significant causes of these cancers being exposure to asbestos, silica, painting and diesel engine exhaust fumes.
  • Construction workers are at risk of higher levels of stress and fatigue than many other industries.

Health Risks and the Need for Health Surveillance

There’s no doubt that many workers in industries like construction are constantly open to the threat of hazardous situations and substances. Thousands find themselves diagnosed with conditions such as dermatitis, asthma and even cancer each year. Not only do businesses have a duty of care to monitor the health of their employees, but the problems that exposure can cause undoubtedly cost the industry hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

According to the HSE, there are 100 people who die each week because of construction related illnesses. 40% of cancers that can be attributed to occupational reasons occur in the construction sector. Exposure to silica and asbestos and even breathing in diesel fumes at work can cause significant health problems later in life.

There is an immediacy about safety, in contrast to the long latency periods associated with many occupational diseases. Someone can be exposed to a hazardous substance and show no affects at all. Employers don’t see the harmful substance there in front of them – dust and particles and dangerous fumes are generally less visible or dismissed as part of the job. Problems often only occur many years or even decades after that first exposure.

Occupational Ill Health in the Construction Industry

While all sectors have their own problem areas when it comes to employee wellbeing, the construction industry consistently sees workers exposed to a wide range of health risks. According to the HSE, this can include the obvious risk of particles and dust, especially in areas where there is asbestos or silica. There are also potential health issues from constant loud noise, the vibration of tools and handling excessive loads as well as the usual stress and fatigue that is associated with the industry.

All businesses need to understand the health risks their employees are faced with when they come to work each day. This means highlighting potential exposure to hazardous substances and harmful ways of working. All employers have a duty of care to identify these areas of concern and put in processes that help reduce the risk. Read how Morrisroe approached this by utilising an efficient solution to avoid a high volume of drilling within concrete slabs to avoid exposure to silica dust and hand-arm vibration.

Changes made now will lead to longer, healthier and more productive working lives for construction workers and several construction firms are leading the way with innovative Health and Wellbeing strategies that are contributing towards the needed shift in culture. The strapline of the Carillion health strategy is ‘Health Like Safety’. They established a health strategy in 2014 with 4 key aims, placing the same emphasis on health issues as they do on safety issues and manage them the same way. Crossrail has also contributed to the development of health toolkits to enable SMEs to sign up to PHRD pledges.

Using Occupational Health Services

An effective occupational health management programme goes beyond providing a clinical and emergency response service. It extends to proactively:

  • Eliminating preventable ill health
  • Limiting exposure to health risk
  • Reducing absence due to work related illness
  • Rehabilitating workers
  • Promoting well-being
  • Promoting standards and good practice

Carrying out regular health checks for employees, particularly in the construction industry, has several benefits:

  • For the business, it will ensure that the health of employees is checked frequently and measures can be put in place should a problem be identified. It can also reduce the liability of the business because they are taking the appropriate measures to protect their employees.
  • For employees, the fact that their company is including health monitoring can help them feel more valued and more motivated. Workers are likely to develop a greater awareness of the health issues they face and take better precautions in their day to day work because they have that input and feedback from occupational health services.
  • An occupational health provision will be able to help employers spot the potential risks and hazards and put in the practical controls that can reduce the likelihood an employee will suffer from health issues further down the line.

The hashtag #constructionhealth is being used to create awareness that health surveillance is an important part of the industry. The good news is that more and more businesses are now putting health on par with safety and monitoring their employees through clearly defined and regular occupational health assessments.


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