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Analysis | Occupational health in construction

150 companies have committed to eradicate the thousands of cases of ill health and disease caused by exposure to health hazards in construction. But how do you eliminate risks that you often can’t see?

“In a few years, we’ll look back on this day and say this was point where the industry started to make the sensible, managed control of operational health risks a matter of routine.”

These were the words of Peter Baker, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chief inspector of construction, as he delivered his verdict on the inaugural Construction Health Summit.

The purpose of the summit was to encourage the industry to open a new front on occupational ill health and wage war against it with the same alacrity with which it has significantly improved safety performance. It secured the commitment of over 150 companies and industry bodies in eradicating the thousands of cases of ill health and disease caused each year as a result of exposure to health hazards during construction work.

Health in construction leadership group summit

Health in construction leadership group summit

Judging by the statistics, however, gaining the industry’s commitment will be the easy part of this particular fight. Deaths from work-related diseases, we were told at the summit, were 100 times more likely than deaths from accidents in the construction sector and killed the equivalent of four A380 Airbuses worth of workers every year – a figure which dwarves the 35 deaths that resulted from safety failures in 2014/15. At the same time, occupational cancer in the construction industry accounts for a massive 40% of cancer deaths and registrations in the workplace.

The example of cancer points to one of the principle problems in dealing with occupational illnesses. The long incubation periods of the disease when it is caused by carcinogens such as asbestos and silica mean it is much more difficult to measure and quantify good occupational safety practices to prevent it.

“We understand what a near miss means in a safety context, but what does a near miss look like from a health point of view?” asked Thames Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell at the event.

To deal with the issue, and others like it, Mitchell said the industry would have to make a ‘leap of faith’. “We’ve got to believe we’re doing the right things. Quite a lot of us won’t be around to know if we are successful or not, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try.”

Engineers will be heartened to know that they will have a central role in making sure the industry does some of the ‘right things’ Mitchell talked about. It won’t be lost on them that they will be called upon to design construction processes that avoid unhealthy situations for workers and it was even suggested that they would have to work more closely with occupational health hygienists in the future to bring a scientific and medical understanding to the design stage.

Dame Judith Hackitt

Dame Judith Hackitt

Dame Judith Hackitt speaking at the conference

Baker added that engineers, and the wider industry, would also have to be vigilant about new risks. “New materials will be developed that will present dangers,” he said. “Nanotechnology is one area that is being talked about as having potential health risks and there will be a role for us as a government body and a role for industry to keep an eye on modern innovations.”

Such a statement puts the scale of the task in perspective. It’s hard enough minimising risks that you are scientifically aware of, but how do you minimise a risk that hasn’t even been identified yet?

Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the HSE, agreed with Mitchell that the most important thing would be to try. She added that an enhanced approach to employee wellbeing could also help make the sector more appealing to potential recruits.

“At a time of skills shortages and making the case for why young people should join one industry rather than another, something like occupational health is an important factor.”

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