Although the number and rate of injuries to construction workers have fallen in recent years, it is still a high-risk industry and accounts for a high percentage of fatal and major injuries.
However, construction is also a high-risk industry for health issues. Statistics show there are more working days lost due to work-related illness than to injuries and that workers in the construction sector have a high risk of developing diseases from a number of health issues.
The Health Issues
Over 40% of occupational cancer deaths and cancer registrations in the UK come from the construction industry. Estimates suggest that past exposures to carcinogens in the sector have caused over 5,000 occupational cancer cases and approximately 3,700 deaths per year. The most common causes of these cancers are asbestos (70%) followed by silica (17%) and working as a painter and diesel engine exhaust (6-7% each).
Coming into contact with dust, chemicals and potentially harmful mixtures, like paints, are common in construction work. There are also processes that emit dust, fumes, vapours or gases into the air which can cause breathing problems and even lung diseases. Some construction-related jobs also involve exposure to hazardous substances that can cause dermatitis.
Physical health risks
Statistics show that the skilled construction and building trades have some of the highest incidences of back injuries and upper limb disorders. Manual handling is the most commonly reported cause of injuries in the industry that lead to work absences of over seven days. The construction industry also has one of the highest rates of ill health caused by noise and vibration.
5 Common Principles
There are five principles to managing the risks of ill health:
- Ill-health can be prevented – it is possible to carry out construction work without causing ill-health.
- Treat health like safety – managing health risks is no different to managing safety risks. Just follow the basic Assess, Control, Review steps.
- Control the risk, not the symptoms – having monitoring and health surveillance programmes is not enough. Although they should be a useful part in managing risks to health, the top priority is to stop the exposure of people to the risk in the first place.
- Manage risk, not lifestyles – the law requires action to be taken to prevent or adequately control work-related health risks. Helping workers tackle lifestyle issues like diet or smoking may be beneficial, but is not a substitute for this.
- Everyone has a role to play – everyone involved in construction has a responsibility in managing risks to health. Each person must take ownership of their part of the process.
Following on from the fifth principle listed above, almost everyone involved in a construction project is a dutyholder with legal obligations under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015). The Regulations identify four relevant ‘dutyholders‘.
Client – A client is anyone who has construction work carried out for them. Under the CDM 2015 regulations, their primary duty is to ensure the project is suitably managed, which includes making sure the health and safety of all who might be affected by the work, including members of the public. The regulations identify two types of client, commercial and domestic. Commercial clients are those who have construction work carried out as part of their business. They could be an individual, a partnership or a company, and includes property developers and companies that manage domestic properties. Domestic clients have construction work carried out for them, but not in connection with any business. The regulations do not require them to carry out client duties as these usually pass to other dutyholders (for example builders or project managers).
Designer – A designer is an individual or organisation whose work involves preparing or modifying designs, drawings, specifications, bills of quantity or design calculations. They may be architects, consulting engineers or quantity surveyors, or anyone who specifies and alters designs as part of their work, including tradespeople. The designer’s primary duty is to control, reduce, or eliminate any foreseeable risks that could occur during the construction phase of the project, or in the use and maintenance of the completed building or structure.
If a project uses more than one contractor, the designers usually work under the control of a principal designer. The principal designer’s main duty under the CDM 2015 regulations is to plan, manage, monitor and coordinate health and safety issues during the pre-construction phase, which is when most design work is carried out.
Contractor – A contractor is any individual or business in charge of carrying out construction work (including building, altering, maintenance or demolition). Anyone who manages this work or directly employs or engages construction workers is a contractor. Their primary duty is to plan, manage and monitor the work under their control, ensuring the health and safety of everyone it might affect, including members of the public.
If a construction project has more than one contractor, they usually work under the control of a principal contractor. This principal contractor is traditionally appointed by the client to manage the construction phase. Their main duty is to plan, manage, monitor and coordinate health and safety while the construction work takes place.
Worker – A worker is any individual who carries out the work involved in building, altering, maintaining or demolishing buildings or structures. They include plumbers, electricians, painters, decorators, scaffolders, steel erectors and labourers, as well as workers in a supervisory role like foreman or chargehand. Their duties include cooperating with their employer and other dutyholders and reporting anything they notice that could endanger their health and safety or the health and safety of others. The regulations state that workers must be consulted on matters that affect their health, safety and welfare.
The consequence of a harmful workplace exposure may take many years or even decades to develop compared to the immediate impact of injuries caused by accidents. However, with more working days lost due to work-related illness than to injuries, it is crucial that health and safety is managed correctly.