In the UK, construction accounts for 6% of the economy and it still remains the most dangerous land based work sector. The output is expected to steadily rise over the next five year however; this post-recession pick up is starting to pose a whole different set of health and safety threats.
Research by QBE recently revealed that almost 7 in 10 firms are planning to recruit additional skilled staff in the next twelve months; however half of these firms are concerned about the availability of fully trained employees.
The construction site demographic is changing, and as a result; there are a considerable amount of older workers as well as an increase in foreign labourers, and with this comes additional health and safety challenges.
ONS figures show that 35,000 construction workers are aged 55 and above, therefore it is inevitable that the physically demanding work combined with the normal effects of ageing can lead to premature physical decline. Therefore in order to capitalise on their experience, more firms are now ensuring that older and more skilled workers stay on to guide and train the younger ones, therefore putting them in less physically demanding work.
There is however a lack of young UK nationals being trained to replace those older workers who are retiring from the industry. The construction sector is becoming increasingly reliant on both skilled and unskilled workers from overseas, and by employing foreign workers new challenges are noticeable.
Firms need to take a proactive approach to managing this now. They need to carry out site audits to establish English language capability and decide whether or not to enforce a minimum level of English requirement for all workers. Clear communication is critical; firms need to identify practical solutions to ensuring all workers fully understand safety practices, for example relying on imagery to communicate safety requirements as opposed to text.
There have been valiant efforts over the years to improve on-site safety in the sector, notwithstanding firm’s struggles to address the new challenges outlined above, but often threats to workers’ health have played second fiddle.
The ‘No Time to Lose’ campaign, launched by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) last year, highlighted the staggeringly high number of occupation-related cancer deaths in the UK.
Some industries are more susceptible than others, and certain working patterns have graver consequences. The measures needed to minimise the risks are often relatively easy to implement and there is no reason why all UK employers, with a cancer related exposure, should not take due precautions and following the hierarchy of hazard control is an excellent place to start.
- Eliminate – redesign the work so that the hazard is removed completely
- Substitute –change the high-risk product to one that doesn’t produce a hazard e.g. replacing lead based paint with acrylic paint.
- Engineering controls – install or use additional machinery, such as local exhaust ventilation, to control risks from dust or fumes. Order materials to size, to reduce the need for cutting on-site.
- Administrative controls – identify and implement procedures to enable safe working e.g. use job rotation to reduce the time workers are exposed to hazardous substances, perform risk assessments, increase safety signage and provide awareness training.
- Protective clothing and equipment – as a last resort and only to be considered after all previous measures have been exhausted. Ensure personal protective equipment (PPE) is individually fitted and workers are trained in the function and limitation of each item of PPE.
The consequences of poor occupational health standards can be grievous. By taking simple precautions, providing appropriate training and ensuring health and safety policies are consistently enforced, lives will be saved. What employer doesn’t want that?