The construction industry has done well to reduce on-site deaths over the past 25 years.
Apart from one or two blips, the total number of fatal injuries each year has reduced from 150 in 1989/1990 to less than 40 in 2014/2015.
However, for every fatal injury on a construction site 100 deaths occur due to occupational disease caused by the work a construction worker has undertaken during their working life – often slow and insidious deaths.
While 42 UK construction workers lost their lives to fatal injuries in 2013/2014, 3,500 deaths in the same year were attributed to occupational cancer alone.
Over 40% of all occupational cancer-related deaths and registrations are due to the exposure of construction workers to asbestos, silica dust, painting and diesel exhaust fumes.
According to Health and Safety Executive 2014 estimates, there were 76,000 cases of work related ill health, including 36,000 new cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Raynaud’s disease, noise induced hearing loss, and musculoskeletal disorders that year.
The immediate effects of poor health are rarely obvious – symptoms often manifest only years, or even decades, after first exposure to on-site carcinogens and other hazards. As such, health concerns have typically failed to receive the same attention as safety risks, and many within the industry still tacitly reduce the term ‘health and safety’ to its later constituent; safety, with little or no consideration for health concerns.
Bad health is also bad for business. The construction industry lost an estimated 1.7M working days in 2012/2013 due to ill health – over three times the figure compared with injuries resulting from accidents – costing UK plc an estimated £400M.
Many industry initiatives to improve health on construction sites have focused primarily on the construction phase – when construction work for a project is being undertaken on the site.
Designers also need to put greater effort into factoring in health concerns during the pre-construction phase – where designers specify materials determining construction processes that invariably entail lifting and handling, dust and fumes, coatings, noise and vibration, to name but a few.
We have seen some progress: the 2015 Construction (Design and Management) regulation update created the new role of principal designer a year ago to oversee health and safety of projects, compelling them to consider the General Principles of Prevention, avoid health risks, evaluate unavoidable hazards, and combat health risks at source when designing new projects.
More can be done, however. Membership of the ICE’s Health and Safety Register, for example, proves an individual’s commitment to design risk management to clients and their employers and provides a forum for industry peers to share best practice and experiences.
Designers and principal designers are uniquely placed to remove or reduce hazards with thoughtful design, but they must understand how design decisions can affect the health of those working on sites.
We know good construction and design saves money and lives, so it is important designers and contractors take both health and safety seriously.
- Margaret Sackey is chair of the ICE Health & Safety Expert Panel