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Constructing a safe workplace on site

17 February 2015

By George Elliott, technical service engineer at 3M.

Construction is a dangerous business. Although injury rates have fallen over the past 20 years, according to recent Health and Safety Executive (HSE) research the industry now employs 5% of the UK workforce, but accounts for 31%  of fatal injuries to employees and 10%t of reported major/specified injuries.


What's more, the dangers are not limited to immediately visible injuries. Construction industry workers carry the largest burden of occupational cancer of all industry sectors. However, because long periods - often decades - may elapse before cancer and many other industrial illnesses become symptomatic, it has become too easy for employers and employees to overlook them.


Why health and safety matters

While 'avoiding the issue' may sometimes have been the approach in the past, it is never acceptable. Construction firms owe a duty of care to all workers, temporary or permanent, directly employed or otherwise, to guard their health and safety with an eye to both immediate and long-term effects. The management of health and safety can also have a key impact on business revenue. So, what are some of the key long-term health and safety challenges encountered on construction sites, and how can health and safety personnel address them?

Long latency health issues

Construction workers carry a huge burden in terms of industrial cancers, in particular those related to asbestos and silica exposure. Skin cancer is also a prevalent concern, largely due to sun exposure.


However, cancer is far from the only threat. Hazardous substances such as dusts and fibres can over time cause workers to develop lung and respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and silicosis. Similarly, high levels of noise can, over a period of years, lead to hearing loss and consequently social and personal isolation.



Long latency health problems can too easily become 'invisible', however bodies such as the HSE commission comprehensive research in a bid to pinpoint the sources of industrial illnesses and to determine indicators by which to measure their occurrence and management in the future. The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) also requires employers to report occupational diseases to the enforcing authority, which is important for health surveillance purposes.


Fortunately, health hazards in the construction industry can be controlled.  By working with staff to develop safer operating procedures and using control measures such as water suppression, often in combination with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), exposure to harmful dusts and noise can be controlled to acceptable levels.

Performance is crucial when it comes to choosing PPE for the prevention of long-latency illness. The 3M range of respiratory protective equipment (RPE), for example, includes robust, comfortable products, with some models providing an assigned protection factor of at least 20, making them well suited to construction applications.


Creating a safety culture
Creating a safety culture, one in which all workers and managers are genuinely committed to high standards and complete compliance with, and maybe even beyond the legislation, is the only way to bring about the kind of sustained behavioural change that will help protect construction workers.


The barriers to creating a safety culture can be various. However, developing improvements does, inevitably, demand some resource, but that 'expenditure' is highly likely to benefit the company in terms of both productivity and efficiency.

Long-term illness caused by working in the construction industry is too often overlooked, and the law makes it the duty of all involved in construction work to manage the risks wherever possible. That means that firms must:
  • Identify and assess health hazards
  • Work with the staff involved to manage those risks
  • Prevent risk as far as possible before any work starts
  • Minimise any residual risks, for example by providing PPE
  • Train workers in the appropriate behaviour, including the use of PPE where required.


With care and thought, debilitating long-term illness can be prevented. Although it is not sufficient on its own, the correct use of appropriate and comfortable PPE is central to effective health protection in construction settings.