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Big construction firms should lead the way

13 March 2019

MAJOR CONSTRUCTION projects should be beacons of best practice for occupational health, giving smaller contractors an opportunity to learn better ways of keeping their workforces safe.

This is the advice of a new report, which highlights the responsibilities of better-resourced companies when it comes to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The study, carried out by Loughborough University, looked specifically at the building of the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC), near Loughborough, and explored how large projects such as this can teach supply chains about the latest health and safety advances.

Lead researcher, Dr Wendy Jones, of the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering (ABCE), said, “Health often ends up as the poor relation of safety in construction, and it can be particularly difficult for smaller companies that don't always have the right expertise, or who have limited budgets, to get the right arrangements in place.

“The fact that construction workers move around between different companies and different projects makes it even harder.

“This research found that some SMEs are improving their management of hazards such as dust and musculoskeletal disorders as a result of working on major projects such as the DNRC, this is good news and confirms that good practices ‘trickle down’ through the sector for health, as they do for safety.

“Major projects have an important role to play in setting high expectations of their contractors in relation to health management and supporting them to reach these.

“This can really help to drive improvements through the sector.

“We still have a long way to go, particularly in terms of the way we educate our workers, managers and OSH professionals about managing health risks and the way the industry manages health surveillance, but this research shows we are heading in the right direction.”

Other recommendations in the report include employing health specialists, such as nurses and physicians, to educate site managers and supervisors.

Firms should also employ at least one person with occupational health training, who can encourage and support compliance of the latest, relevant standards.

The study found that a common complaint from workers was that they were being exposed to health risks by the activities of other contractors.

The report recommended better planning, so that noisy or dusty work was scheduled at a time when it would have the least impact on other people, and separating workers via noise exclusion zones and noise barriers.

The research, Improving occupational health risk management in SMEs: the role of major projects, was made possible after Loughborough WAS named recipients of the B&CE Charitable Trust OH Research Award IN 2016, worth £25,000.  

Margaret Grahamslaw, head of occupational health at B&CE, said, “These recommendations centre around the importance of training in occupational health awareness to ultimately improve the wellbeing of workers in the construction industry across the UK.

“By ensuring at least one member of staff in any company, regardless of size, is trained in this area, this can encourage the spread of knowledge in both common OH issues and those that are less well understood.

“We’re grateful that our charitable trust could provide Loughborough University with the funds to facilitate this important research and look forward to using our joint voices in the industry to make these recommendations a reality in construction.”