UK: Construction Sites Are Challenged To "Think Health"

Last Updated: 15 August 2014
Article by Esme Saynor

Summary and implications

Over two million people are employed in the construction industry, which is one of the most dangerous sectors to work in. There were 39 fatal accidents on construction sites in 2012, and for every fatal accident in the construction industry, it is estimated that a worker is around 100 times more likely to die from a disease caused or made worse by their work.

The main issues

This has led to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) highlighting industrial disease in their industry sector plan for 2014/15 and looking more at the risk of industrial disease in construction workers during inspections and site visits. The latest published figures demonstrate high instances of the repercussions of exposures in the construction sector:

  • There were an estimated 74,000 total cases and 31,000 new cases of work-related ill health between 2010 and 2012.
  • There were 11,048 musculoskeletal disorders between 2010 and 2012, which is 60 per cent higher than the rate for other industries.
  • About 3,700 occupational cancer cases are estimated to arise each year as a result of past exposures. Analysis by industry has shown that the construction industry has the largest burden of occupational cancer amongst the industrial sectors; over 40 per cent of the occupational cancer deaths and cancer registrations were from construction. Most of them were caused by past exposures to asbestos and silica but solar radiation, coal tars and pitches were responsible for around 1,300 cancer registrations.
  • An estimated 1.4m working days were lost in 2011/12, 818,000 due to ill health, making a total of 0.7 days lost per worker.

Civil claims and the compensation culture are driving up the costs of insurance as the industry reaps the costs of historic exposures to harmful substances and working practices. The combined costs of lost time and insurance premiums makes investment in long-term health protection measures the sensible option.

HSE unannounced visits

During a recent drive, the HSE has been making unannounced visits across the country, focusing on ill health on construction sites. Reported inspections of acceptable standards consider asbestos and other hazardous substances, such as cement and lead in paint, manual handling and repetitive tasks such as twisting or awkward posture, noise control and use of vibrating tools.

The legislation requires only an exposure to a risk of ill health for an offence to be made out (when coupled with other elements such as the reasonable practicability of managing the risk) (HSWA - Health and Safety At Work Act). The manner in which industrial disease emerges a number of years after exposure has enabled the regulators to clamp down on any potential exposure in the earlier stages by focusing on site activities.

Managing the risk

Employers have a duty of care to ensure employees and members of the public are not exposed, and failing to do so can leave them responsible if staff or others fall ill, or if they are exposed to a risk of falling ill. This is true whether they are working as a direct employee or were sub-contracted to the worksite. 

The law says employers must reduce the exposure of workers to industrial disease, including in the case of substances that can cause respiratory disease or breathing difficulty if inhaled (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002). This can be done by eliminating the hazard where possible or controlling the substance – for example, by water suppression or extraction if the issue is dust. PPE (personal protective equipment) may be needed along with clear information, instruction and training for those exposed to the risk.

The HSE five-stage plan and related guidance is a starting point for managing risks for construction health risks shows how to manage the risk from substances that can cause industrial disease:

  • Stage 1: Arrangement
  • Stage 2: Assess health risks
  • Stage 3: Eliminate risk
  • Stage 4: Control risk
  • Stage 5: Manage remaining risk

The recent changes to the RIDDOR requirements and the reclassification of industrial diseases triggers for benefits for the affected are further testament to the focus on the long-term health effects of work. The need to keep abreast of changes in the approach to occupational health was never greater.

Recent enforcement action

In a recent case prosecuted by the HSE, fines were handed down of £22,000 (plus costs) to those responsible for the assessment and management of construction works in a building where workers were put at risk of potential exposure to asbestos fibres. The charges were brought under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012. The works involved the removal of an existing lift ahead of the new one being installed. The lift shaft contained asbestos boards, which were removed without measures in place to prevent the spread of asbestos fibres.

The owners of the property had a duty as the client to ensure that arrangements made for managing the lift replacement were suitable, and ensuring there was no risk to health. They failed in this duty as they provided contractors with conflicting information and, although an asbestos survey was provided, it was not sufficiently accurate or detailed enough for the work being carried out. The HSE investigation found that the contractors failed in their duty to plan and manage the work as it did not make adequate inquiries about the presence of asbestos. The HSE inspector said:

"Asbestos is the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK and those involved in the construction and refurbishment industry have a clear duty to ensure that work is managed so as to prevent the spread of asbestos. This incident occurred because not one of the defendants fulfilled their respective duties when carrying out the lift replacement, leading to asbestos fibres being disturbed."

It is not sufficient to rely on provision of reports and at the end of the day if there is a failure leading to potential exposure on site the responsible persons whether they are the client or a contractor undertaking the works, can be in the frame for potential exposures, regardless of proof of damage.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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