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Occupational diseases kill the same number of people in the construction industry every year as it would take to fill four A380 Airbuses.

The shocking statistic came to light at the inaugural Construction Health Summit where it was also revealed that deaths from work-related diseases were 100 times more likely than deaths by accidents in the construction sector.

The summit, which was organised by The Health in Construction Leadership Group, brought leading clients, contractors and the Health and Safety Executive together to try to address the industry’s poor record on occupational health.

The Breakfast Summit successfully secured the commitment of over 150 companies and industry bodies to eradicate the thousands of cases of ill health and disease caused each year as a result of exposure to health hazards during construction work.

Dame Judith Hackitt

Dame Judith Hackitt

Dame Judith Hackitt speaking at the conference

Speaking at the event, Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), said: “Fifteen years ago the construction industry realised it had a major problem with its safety performance and by coming together at a similar event and recognising the problem, the industry took the lead and we’ve seen massive improvements.”

“The purpose of this latest summit is to get the sector to recognise the scale of the challenge it now faces to reach that same level of improvement in its performance on occupational health.”

Peter Baker, chief inspector of construction for the HSE said the important thing was that the impetus for the event had come from construction firms.

“We are part of the conversation but the industry recognises that they need to prioritise their approach to health and put it at the same level of safety,” he said. “It’s about getting that high-level commitment of senior leaders and getting them all on the same page to tackle it now – the longer people leave it, the more people will die.”

Baker added that the next step after the summit would be for the industry to decide how it would deliver on a commitment to improved occupational safety and what such a commitment would mean in practice.

Thames Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell said he had committed to take a ‘transformational approach’ to health, safety and wellbeing when building the £4.2bn super sewer.

“If we want to get a better result in occupational health, then we’ve got to understand what we’re going to differently,” he said.

“It’s trying to find new ways of doing things, from the way we design, to the way we bring people onto projects, the approach we take, to how they are treated. Our ambition is that the people working for us will universally notice that the approach is different and better.”

Mitchell predicted that occupational health hygienists would have a more prominent role in the industry as it tries to address the issue of occupational illness.

“The thing that surely lies at the heart of what we’re doing here which is designing out ill health opportunities, so the existence of a discipline celled occupational health hygienists needs to be better understood and better used.”

Companies to pledge their commitment to eradicate occupational ill health in construction include Balfour Beatty, Bovis Homes, Crossrail, Land Securities, Mace and Skanska, as well as industry bodies such as BOHS, Build UK, CITB, HSE, IIRSM and IOSH.

The Health in Construction Leadership Group will host its second meeting on 21 April. At that meeting, operational and health and safety directors from committed companies and industry bodies will attend the second meeting to put a tactical action plan together for the initiative.

This story was amended at 14.39 on 22 January to add the news that 150 companies have now signed a commitment to support the intitiative.

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