Time for the construction industry to 'Think Health'

07 August 2014

A recent HSE inspection drive to tackle occupation health on construction sites found on at least 13 occasions that site conditions were so poor work had to be stopped. The health and safety body shares some of the findings of the initiative and explains how it is working to ensure construction sites treat health issues as seriously as safety.

Reducing the unacceptable burden of occupational disease in construction has been the target of an intensive inspection initiative across England, Scotland and Wales aiming to ensure the site activities that cause ill-health in the industry are prevented or properly controlled. The two week initiative revealed that the industry needs to do much more to reduce the risk of ill health to workers. Substantial enforcement action has been taken where work activities fall short of expected standards.
Taking place from 23rd June to 8th July 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carried out unannounced checks at sites looking at any activities creating a risk to workers’ health. HSE inspectors focussed on many of the main causes of occupational ill-health in construction, notably respiratory risks from dusts including silica materials; other hazardous substances such as cement and paint materials including lead; manual handling; noise; and vibration. 
Throughout the initiative HSE wanted to send the message to the construction industry that poor standards of health risk management are unacceptable and liable to result in enforcement action. It is widely recognised that the management of health risks by the industry has not improved at the same rate as the management of safety risks.  

While there were 39 fatal injuries to construction workers in 2013-14, each year approximately 100 times as many workers die from diseases caused or made worse by their work, including approximately 2500 from asbestos related disease and over 500 from silica exposure. More than 50% of all occupational cancer registrations in men are from working in construction. An estimated 70,000 builders are currently suffering ill health as a result of their work and more working days are lost due to ill-health than that related to safety incidents.

The inspection initiative aimed to drive home the message to those working in the industry that poor health risk management and a lack of awareness of responsibilities are not only unacceptable, but can cost lives.

The final inspection figures have yet to be confirmed but conditions were so poor in some situations that the work had to be stopped on at least 13 occasions.

The data collected so far shows that a total of 560 sites were visited. At 85 of these sites enforcement notices were served : 13 Prohibition Notices and 107 Improvement Notices. A total of 239 health related Notices of Contravention were served at 201 of the sites.  Enforcement action was taken on all the health risk issues targeted, i.e. COSHH, manual handling, and control of noise and vibration risks.

HSE’s Chief Inspector Heather Bryant has said: "We recognise the construction sector’s progress in reducing the number of people killed and injured by its activities.  But it is clear from these figures why there is an unacceptable toll of ill-health and fatal disease in the industry. 

"So, to encourage the industry to treat health issues in the same way as safety, HSE’s Inspectors will consolidate the efforts of this initiative throughout the rest of the year by looking at the prevention and control of health risks in construction alongside their continued assessment of the management of safety risk issues.

"We will make sure the construction industry ‘Thinks Health’, as well as safety.”