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Fitness first

Construction has traditionally focused on safety and shown little direct interest in the actual health of its workforce. Not so on T5, as Alan Sparks reports.

Over the decades, there has been strong passive resistance to measures to improve occupational health (OH) on site. Often such efforts have been seen as a threat to jobs.

Workers are sceptical and can be suspicious when outside OH specialists are brought in.

At T5, this cynicism is being tackled head on. All new workers must fill in a medical questionnaire and the 30% of these who will work in safety critical roles must undergo a full medical.

'These are construction workers who switch from site to site and our occupational health specialists have been astonished at the amount of undiagnosed health issues, ' says BAA head of health and safety for T5 Mike Evans.

Chief ailments are poor eyesight and high blood pressure. Construction workers tend not to seek treatment and most would not register with a local GP. BAA is trying to convince workers that this is not about excluding people. It is about helping them to get treatment and come back to work healthier and therefore safer.

Occupational health is not just about the effect work has on people but also what effect their health has on the work, insists Evans. For example, drivers with poor eyesight are putting other workers at risk.

Simple medicals can instantly negate this danger.

Finding the right staff is a major factor on a project as vast as T5. 'So convincing the workforce that you care and that they will be well looked after is a good way to attract and retain staff, ' Evans adds.

With the focus firmly on prevention rather than cure, even designers have been targeted by the OH team. Here issues were raised about the impact that design and specification choices can have on workers' health.

An example of this was the use of a solvent based adhesive containing isocyanates. The designer missed the opportunity to adopt a less hazardous material, but once the issue was raised, a safer alternative was soon found.

Together with the designers, the planning supervisor has drawn up a red list detailing processes, products and procedures that are habitually damaging to health, safety or the environment. If a designer feels that they need to specify one of these, then they have to provide written justification as to why this has been chosen and why they could not find an alternative solution.

The OH team provides health surveillance around typical construction industry problems, such as noise-induced hearing loss, cement dermatitis, hand arm vibration syndrome and occupational asthma.

Comprehensive treatment, emergency response services and health promotion campaigns are also provided.

'This is a major part of demonstrating that we genuinely care for people's wellbeing on T5, ' says Evans.

This summer, contractors noted a large proportion of hand injuries. By insisting that all workers wear gloves, the frequency of these injuries is down by half in four months.

'We have yet to carry out a study into the financial benefits of avoiding the loss of workers to injury but we are seeing significant benefits from the occupational health and safety initiatives, ' Evans says.

The latest scheme to be wheeled out is lifestyle medicals. This, along with cholesterol checks and repeat medicals will have beneficial effects not just on productivity, but also on reducing risk.

Evans asks: 'Would you want to be on site knowing that the driver of a 40t truck is on the verge of a heart attack?'

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