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Whitepaper: Health and Safety in the Construction Industry

If there is one industry where health and safety really matters it is construction. The potential for harm is huge, from accidents on unsafe sites through to the health issues that can arise from heavy and repetitive work. Ensuring that legal obligations are met and that working environments are the best that they can be is a responsibility that falls on every construction industry business, large or small. However, there are many issues within the industry in this area, from a lack of awareness of responsibilities through to the need for greater focus on ‘health,’ as opposed to just safety. In this whitepaper we will be looking at the legal requirements for the industry, the responsibilities that fall to clients and contractors, as well as how attitudes have changed towards health and safety over the years.

 Why does health and safety matter?

It’s a given that health and safety is a key part of every project and there are some very good reasons for this that include – but go beyond – simply falling foul of the law.

  • The law requires that certain standards of protection are implemented
  • Failures to implement health and safety requirements can result in significant fines and prosecution
  • Construction companies with poor health and safety records suffer reputationally
  • Other costs can arise as a consequence of a lack of care with health and safety e.g. future insurance premiums
  • Attention to health and safety is crucial for creating a healthy, happy and motivated workforce who will do a great job
  • Accident claims can be incredibly costly

Health and safety at work – the legal requirements

Health and safety law in the UK is made up of a combination of legislation and regulations that are designed to create a comprehensive serious of rules that will protect employees in their place of work. The onus is always on those with control of conditions and the working environment to take steps to ensure that it is the best that it can be.

The Health and Safety Act 1974 (“HSA”)

The HSA is the primary piece of legislation governing health and safety at work in England and Wales. It was designed to enable companies to implement practical compliance with occupational health and safety requirements in the UK and was a fairly ground breaking piece of legislation when it was first enacted. The HSA is enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, which has a wide range of powers, from carrying out extensive investigations and issuing improvement notices, through to prosecuting those who fall short via the courts. The HSA has had a very tangible impact on health and safety in this country – between 1974 when it was first enacted and 2015, for example, fatal injuries to employees fell by 85%.

The HSA places responsibility for worker health and safety squarely at the feet of employers. It also imposes duties on contractors, designers, suppliers, importers and manufacturers of articles and substances used at work, and employees. The HSA focuses heavily on it being the employer who holds the responsibility for ensuring that there is a safe site at all times where risks are addressed and minimised where possible. The legislation is not designed to be complicated as its purpose is to help employers improve conditions at work for employees. However, it has a fairly wide remit and sets broad boundaries for employer responsibilities – for example it could extend to a situation where illness is affecting the ability of specific employees to perform tasks. That could require a reassessment of the role of those employees  and changes to the responsibilities that they hold in order to comply with health and safety requirements.

Health and safety regulations

In addition to the HSA there are a number of regulations in place that are specifically designed for construction workers. For construction industry businesses, compliance with these regulations is crucial, not just to prevent problems with accident and/or injury, but also to avoid the legal consequences that may follow from a lack of compliance. These regulations are numerous and are continuously added to. They include regulations such as:

The Control of Lead at Work Regulations 2002

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 20024 (COSHH)

The Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005

The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012

In addition, there are many more general health and safety regulations that could affect construction companies, such as the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995, which requires that any problems on site are reported.

The importance of risk assessment

Risk assessment has a big part to play in successful health and safety at work. The purpose of risk assessment is to increase risk awareness and control so as to minimise and prevent accidents and health related issues occurring.

It is also made a legal requirement for employers via The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. Employers have a legal duty to assess the risks that employees face while working for them (this also extends to those who are not working for an employer but may still be affected). Risk identification and assessment is required for each work activity and the Health and Safety Executive recommends regular consultation with employees when it comes to the risks they face. A general assessment by employers is recommended to identify the key risks and control measures, followed by a second brief assessment of the risks by the employees about to embark on the job. One of the benefits of involving employees is ensuring that they are complying with the same standards of health and safety as the employer is.

Risk assessment is something that most construction sector companies have to get used to early on. For businesses over a certain size there may be a requirement to keep records of risk assessment so as to be able to prove that it has taken place. It may even be helpful to have surveillance that can back this up.

What are the consequences for a lack of legal compliance?

For firms in the construction sector a lack of health and safety compliance can be particularly problematic. Damage to reputation can be long term, affecting not just the ability to attract business but also recruitment prospects and how the company is viewed as a potential employer. Financial penalties as a result of prosecution can be severe – six figure sums are not an uncommon occurrence – and the loss of earnings that can be the result of gaining a record for poor health and safety can be difficult for construction businesses to absorb. Where accidents have taken place that could have been prevented by better safety controls there may be legal claims by those affected. So, from financial penalties through to reputational damage, the consequences of a failure to comply with health and safety law can be pretty crippling.

Specific challenges for the construction industry

There were 2.1 million people working in the construction industry in 2014 in a variety of different roles. Work is often physical and may involve being on a construction site and some construction sector jobs involve potentially handling hazardous materials such as asbestos. So, right from the start, construction is already an industry with a unique set of challenges when it comes to health and safety. It’s also a sector where many employers are smaller companies – of the 2.1 million people working in the industry in 2014, 50% were either self-employed or working for smaller SMEs. That can make legal compliance a real challenge and also makes it more difficult to police.

Key construction facts:

It’s easier to hold larger firms accountable. In fact, there are plenty of examples of big employers who have been caught and fined by the Health and Safety Executive. However, it is far more difficult to regulate smaller firms and individuals and these make up around half of the construction industry.

Health (not safety) issues are a problem in construction. Between 2009 and 2010, for example, 98% of all work-related deaths in the construction industry were as a result of health issues.

Construction workers don’t work past 60. The retirement age is already rising in the UK and forecast to continue going up in the coming years. However, for construction workers carrying on at work is not an option – less than half of male construction workers are still able to continue in their current job past the age of 60 due to the very specific health issues that arise.

Constructing Better Health (CBH)

CBH is an industry driven not-for-profit initiative that was introduced in 2005 and is designed to make the construction sector a better place to be in health and safety terms. It is all about education and ensuring that those in the sector have the knowledge and skills to better appreciate and control the risks and cope with the health challenges that the construction industry faces. CBH provides resources to help contractors and their Occupational Health Service Providers to do their jobs more efficiently whilst protecting workers’ health. Resources include extensive risk management tools, bespoke risk management resources and National Standards for Occupational Health in Construction.

Where does the responsibility lie for health and safety?

Construction companies have a duty of care to those who work for them, as well as those who may be affected by a construction site or the work being carried out. That’s why there is a requirement to consistently demonstrate positive management of a working environment and assessment and removal of any risks as far as is possible. Health and safety best practice is an ongoing process and employers in construction should be continuously learning from each other and seeking out new ways to be better at providing the best possible – and safest – working environment at all times.

However, employers are not the only construction industry figures who have a part to play in positive health and safety outcomes.

Contractors

In the same way as the main overseeing company is required to comply with health and safety standards, so are contractors who are responsible for the different parts of a project. Health and safety coverage must be comprehensive for the construction workers involved, which is why contractors are drawn in too. Legislation such as The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and 1999 set standards for all companies and catch contractors who are involved in construction projects. For contractors keen to ensure that they are compliant with UK health and safety law throughout the lifetime of a project, these legal requirements must be met.

Clients

Although construction sector clients don’t have direct influence over site conditions or worker safety there is still a lot that can be done to ensure that projects are safe and accident free. It is predominantly a question of carefully choosing who to work with when setting up a project. Contractors who are adequately qualified and can demonstrate the right skills and experience are crucial. Choosing to work with those who have a positive safety record, the right certifications and who show a genuine interest in worker safety and legal compliance can have a big impact on how seriously health and safety is taken by those who are offering construction services.

Clients also have a responsibility to periodically review projects, not just for progress and checking whether budgets have been adhered to but also to ensure that health and safety conditions are being complied with. Where there are clear problems it’s important that those responsible are held to account and that any issues that arise are swiftly dealt with.

Workers

Construction industry workers don’t have any direct responsibility for their environments in terms of controlling overall risks or putting health and safety procedures in place. However, there are many ways in which everyone on site can contribute to a healthier and safer working environment, from consulting on risk assessment through to ensuring that any problems are reported quickly. Workers must still hold themselves to the highest possible health and safety standards.

Construction is a fairly unique industry in that responsibility for health and safety is divided up across various elements of the design and build process. All parties need to work together to ensure that standards are met.

The issue of occupational health

Safety is one area of legal compliance that most construction sector businesses are already well on top of. But what about health? According to Constructing Better Health, UK construction workers are at least 100 times more likely to die from an occupational disease than from an accident. Plus, around 1.2m working days are lost per year, due to work-related ill health in the construction industry alone. So, guaranteeing occupational health in the construction sector is something that the industry has yet to master. Evidence of this comes from many sources, including the statistic that fewer than half of male construction workers are still able to do their jobs when they reach the age of 60.

Why is it so difficult to improve occupational health?

There are a number of reasons why the structure of the construction industry makes it difficult to improve occupational health but perhaps the most significant is the lack of monitoring opportunity. Construction workers may travel a lot and can work in locations all over the country, even the world. This makes them difficult to monitor, both in terms of statistics that can identify where specific problems are arising and also from the point of view of medical professionals. As a result of this slightly nomadic lifestyle it may be that construction workers don’t seek help early enough when it comes to health conditions. Being away from home and your own doctor often means that some symptoms can go unidentified and untreated. And without being around family and friends there is often a lack of pressure to get changes in health seen to by a medical professional. As a result, problems with health can go unchecked, escalate quite quickly and result in lost work time or even forced retirement.

How can occupational health in the construction sector be improved?

A combination of risk management and encouraging workers to be more responsible for their own health would make a real difference.

Risk management – dangers to health are a different threat to potential accident risks and it’s important that the risk management being carried out reflects this. For example, exposure to certain materials may not be an accident risk but could potentially create problems in the future and so workers should be issued with proper protective gear such as facemasks to avoid dust inhalation.

Worker involvement – every worker in the construction sector ultimately has responsibility for their own health. However, encouraging workers to take this more seriously is something that everyone can do, from employers to colleagues. Construction workers who are engaged with their own health are able to look for signs of issues and to contribute when it comes to risk assessment in their own workplace. Opening up the discussion of occupational health to those who are also affected by it will contribute greatly to improving standards and giving the entire industry a better record overall.

Ultimately, health and safety is something that benefits everyone involved in construction, from creating better compliance overall to making working life better, safer, more productive and more profitable for everyone, from employers to workers.

The RG Group are dedicated to providing the safest working environments to all members of their team, and work hard to minimise all occupational health hazards onsite. If you’re interested to find out more about working with the RG Group, get in touch today on 01732 526 850.

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