Statistics show that construction work is getting safer, with a lower rate of fatal accidents than ever before. But a construction worker is still about 100 times more likely to die of work-related ill-health than as a result of an accident on site.
Forty years after the Robens committee and the genesis of the Health & Safety at Work Act, “health” has always been the poorer relation in the health and safety partnership, and is frequently ignored.
Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics show that the overall rate of fatal injury for employees in all industries has fallen since 1974 from 29 per million, to four per million – just 14% of the earlier figure. The rate of self-reported work related illness has also fallen, from 59,000 per million to 37,000 (2011/12) – a reduction of only 38%.
So it is understandable that HSE wants occupational health to keep moving up the agenda for all construction companies, and for large companies to show real leadership in influencing a cultural change. Many employers are increasingly recognising that the existence of a managed occupational health scheme not only leads to a safer and more efficient workforce, but can also help manage exposure to corporate liabilities.
Further emphasis to this development is being added by the Public Health Responsibility Deal, a government initiative to improve public health within the UK. In October 2013, a pledge specifically for the construction industry was launched, and now has over 43 signatories. Many clients, major contractors and others are developing their policies and procedures in line with the pledge, which will include some degree of supply chain compliance.
In addition to addressing the causes of occupational ill health and disease, the pledge also offers a menu of actions that businesses could take – ranging from producing an annual report on the health and well-being of their employees to encouraging staff to quit smoking or to undertake a health check.
There is a lot of misunderstanding as to how to tackle health risks in construction. The collective aim of those working in the field is to work towards a position where health risks in construction are managed at least as well as safety risks are dealt with. There is also a need to dispel a perception that occupational health is first aid or just health surveillance. There is also a need to improve understanding of the standards required of occupational health service providers, and the choice of provider that is available to employers of all sizes.
In addition to the effect that work has on health, practitioners also consider the effect of health on work. This is crucially important in tasks where a person needs to be fully functioning and capable in order to do their task safely, and avoid risk to themselves or others. This is especially relevant for plant operators, and the Strategic Forum Plant Safety Group has published guidance on this topic, which is available from the Construction Plant-hire Associaiton. UKCG and other industry bodies have accepted this guidance and recognise that compliance with it is a sufficient assurance of the medical fitness of the operator.
- Kevin Minton is director at the Construction Plant-hire Association