by Jess Sharman
According to HSE, within the UK there are 80,000 construction workers who suffer from work-related bad health each year and 64,000 who suffer non-fatal injuries.
In the 2016/2017 reporting year alone, there were 30 construction-related deaths. In this article we count down some of the main causes of injury, illness and death.
In 2017, Bam Construction Limited and Shoreland Projects Limited were found guilty of breaching Regulation 14 of the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 by HSE after a worker was electrocuted, resulting in multiple life changing injuries. The work involved a lamp post touching an 11kV overhead power line as it was being lifted into position. The worker had to be pried from the lamp column using a piece of timber. An investigation by HSE found procedural failure: the presence of overhead power lines was not properly identified, and there were no proper control measures put into place to avoid contact. While only one worker was injured, several were put at risk. BAM was fined £260,000 and ordered to pay additional costs of £9,415. Shoreland Projects was fined £22,000 and ordered to pay costs of £8,442.
As a whole, the country averages around three construction-related electrocution accidents per year. Frighteningly, an increasing number of electricity-related accidents involve unqualified workers performing electrical work.
11. Airborne fibres and toxins
According to HSE, there are 12,000 work-related lung disease deaths each year with 18,000 new self-reported cases of breathing problems. While construction is not responsible for all of these, our industry is a top contributor. The problem is that many of these conditions can take years to develop, creating a false sense of security and causing workers and their supervisors to become lax with enforcing the proper use of PPE.
There are multiple sources of potential lung damage within the construction environment. These include:
- Dust caused by stone masonry, removing rubble and general site clean-up
- Toxic fibres that become airborne when laying carpet, inhaling isocyanates, which are used in paints, varnishes, glues, flooring and building insulation materials
- Various wood dusts
Conditions created by breathing in these particles run the gambit from occupational asthma to silicosis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and lung cancer.
Another key source of fatal respiratory conditions is asbestos. When annual deaths from lung disease are categorised by type, asbestos-related lung cancer makes up 20% of the overall figure. There are an estimated 500,000 public buildings in the UK containing asbestos. Elements like ceiling tiles, thermal paper and wall plaster, insulation, cement siding and even switchgears and circuit breakers in older buildings present hazards to the unwary, particularly electricians.
It’s important to note that asbestos is particularly dangerous because carrying the dust home can present a danger to a worker’s family. Called para-occupational or secondary exposure, when a family member comes into contact with asbestos dust they are placed at risk for developing respiratory issues as well.
9. Unintended collapse
Of the 137 workers killed at work during 2016–2017, 10 were killed because something collapsed. People working in and around excavations are particularly are at risk, as several things that can happen. These include:
- Falling into an excavation
- The area around an excavation becoming unstable, resulting in collapse when extra loads are applied (like scaffolding or vehicles)
- Undermining the integrity of nearby structures, causing them to collapse
- Injury from falling materials when the integrity of the excavation itself collapses.
8. Materials handling
Manual materials handling are those tasks that involve lifting, holding, carrying, lowering, pushing and pulling materials and material loads. While there are a variety of injury types associated with materials handling (bruises, punctures, broken bones), the most common is soft tissue damage, i.e. damage to muscles, ligaments, tendons, discs, cartilage and/or nerves.
Typically, soft tissue injuries affect the neck, shoulders, elbows, arms, wrists, hands, lower back, hips, legs, knees, ankles, and feet. They can happen immediately or start as a twinge that gradually grows worse over time. The intensity of the injury can also vary, from mild to moderate discomfort to intense pain and the potential for permanent disability. Healing can take months or even years, which not only disrupts the ability to work and earn a wage but affects daily personal activities.
7. Hand and vibration syndrome
Hand and vibration syndrome (HAVS) occurs when a worker continually uses handheld power tools. While it is easily preventable, once someone has developed HAVS, the damage is permanent. Early symptoms of HAVS include tingly and/or numbness in fingers and hands. Left untreated, dexterity becomes limited and touch receptors are impaired. This results in workers unable to grasp things properly, which creates all sorts of problems – from being able to hold on to a tool or even pour a glass of water.
From 2007 to 2017, HSE reports that there were 1,505 new work-related deafness claims in the UK. Of these, 10 were women and 1,495 were men. Construction sites in particular can be problematic when it comes to hazardous noise levels. The problem is that because noise levels on a site can vary workers are often lax in wearing the proper hearing protective gear. There is also a problem of being issued the wrong kind of hearing protectors, which not only increases reluctance to wear them but can create additional hazards, like being unable to hear a warning call or not fitting properly with other PPE.
5. Slips and trips
Slips and trips are the most common non-fatal workplace-related injury reported each year, constituting approximately 40% of all reported injuries. Within the construction industry, HSE reports that there are several thousand workers injured on site each year, with approximately 1,000 of those ending up with a dislocated joint or fractured bone. The key factor with slips and trips is that, most of the time, hazards are easily avoided with proper work area management.
4. Moving objects
Constructions sites are typically a buzz of activity and, as with slips and trips, without proper work area management, being hit by a moving object can become a hazard.
There are several reasons that a worker might be hit by a moving object. These include:
- Untidy and cluttered work areas that hinder safe manoeuvring
- Lack of warning lights and/or beepers on moving vehicles
- Poorly lit work areas
- Working close to moving objects
- Colliding with mobile elements such as machinery, pallets or boxes
- The lack of warning signs at movement intersections
3. Working from height
Working from height continues to be one of the major causes of fatality within our industry, making up nearly 50% of total fatal injuries in 2016–2017. Some of the common hazards associated with working from heights include:
- Lack of guardrails and unguarded openings
- Inadequate edge protection
- Unsecured ladders or scaffolding
- Loose tools and/or improperly stored materials on roofs and elevated walkways
While exhaustion itself isn’t generally cited as a top risk, it is a factor that underlies many construction site incidents. Construction work can be extremely laborious and often requires long hours of hard manual labour in sometimes harsh weather conditions. When a worker is physically or mentally exhausted, their level of attentiveness goes down, opening the door to poorly-thought-out decisions and costly mistakes.
Surprisingly, the number one risk in the construction industry isn’t physical but mental. Beating out working from heights as the number one cause of fatality is suicide. Here in the UK, we actually lead the country with our numbers. According to the Office for National Statistics the suicide average amongst low-skilled male construction workers is almost four times the national average, putting the likelihood of suicide in our industry 63% higher than in any other reporting group. Breaking down the numbers, of the 10,688 ‘people in-work’ suicides reported from 2011–2015, 1,047 worked in the construction industry, comprising just over 13% of the overall figures.
The big question on this one is why? What is it about working in the construction industry that drives people to take their own lives more so than in other industries? Some credit the insecure nature of the job combined with low pay, exploitation and bullying.
Things that can help
While the HSE and other websites offer a plethora of advice regarding construction site safety, here are just a few tips:
- Carry out daily pre-work site surveys to spot any potential risks and take pre-emptive action.
- Hold mandatory safety meetings and tool box talks. Start each workday with a brief safety meeting discussing the day’s plans, worksite changes, and reviewing appropriate safety measures. Hold regular tool box talks to ensure that workers are aware of appropriate procedures and responses, and that they are reminded of the importance of following them.
- Make PPE mandatory. This includes proper clothing (including reflective vests) and safety equipment like hard hats, eye protection and ear protection.
- Schedule regular breaks into the work day. Make sure that workers are taking enough breaks. Encourage them to look out for one another and create an environment where it is safe to speak up if someone is struggling or showing signs of absentmindedness or exhaustion.
- Treat mental health with the same level of concern as you do physical health. Address it in tool box talks. Encourage frank discussion and conversation. Be proactive in providing means for workers to talk to a colleague or manager. Simple actions can make a big difference and possibly prevent someone from reaching the crisis point.