The likelihood of a construction worker being killed on the job in the United Kingdom is on average four times higher than in other industries. With the sector employing roughly seven percent of the U.K. workforce, that translates into a high number of people who unfortunately do not return home at the end of the work day.
According to the U.K. Health and Safety Executive, the government agency that oversees workplace health and safety, there were 38 fatal injuries to workers (and six to members of the public) in the construction sector during the period between April 2017 and March 2018. That number has not changed in five years, with the average during the past half-decade sitting at 39 fatalities per year.
It’s easy to discern the causes for a large majority of these deaths. According to the HSE, a staggering 47 percent of construction-related fatalities were due to falls from height. A further 12 percent were the result of someone either being trapped by something collapsing or being struck by an object.
Within the same timeframe, 58,000 construction workers, or 2.6 percent of the sector’s workforce, suffered non-fatal work-related injuries. This is about 50 percent higher than the nation’s all-industry average. The main kinds of accidents from 2015 to 2018 were falls from height (33 percent) slips, trips or falls on same level (30 percent) and struck by moving, including flying/falling, object (13 percent).
As highlighted by guidance provided by Intelex Health and Safety Practice Lead Scott Gaddis in a recent post, the danger posed by these hazards are becoming even greater thanks to new factors. “Added to this is the reality that we now deal with the distraction of things like cell phones, creating a perfect storm of substandard conditions met by an increase of substandard behaviors.”
Aside from the human toll, construction-related health and safety failings resulted in an estimated £1.062 billion cost to the British economy. This accounts for seven percent across all industries.
Construction is also a high-risk sector when it comes to health issues. It has the largest burden of occupational cancer amongst industrial sectors within the U.K. According to the HSE, the most significant cause of these cancers is asbestos (70 percent) followed by silica (17 percent) and working as a painter and diesel engine exhaust (six to seven percent each).
Hazardous substances, such as dusts, chemicals and potentially harmful mixtures (such as in paints) are common in construction work. And back injuries, upper limb disorders, and injuries related to noise and vibration offer other physical health risks.
So what causes these conditions? The HSE identifies a few key reasons:
- The construction site environment. Work takes place in many and varied environments, and different sites can present a range of health risks, including existing ones like asbestos.
- The dynamic nature of the work. Construction sites are constantly changing, and a large number of trades may all be carrying out tasks potentially dangerous to their health and that of others.
- A low awareness of health risks and the controls needed. It can take many years for serious ill health conditions to develop and the immediate consequence of a harmful workplace exposure may often be dismissed as not significant compared to the immediate impact of injuries caused by accidents.
- Many workers are either self-employed, work for small companies, or frequently change employers. Others work away from home. These situations can make it problematical for workers to easily look after their own health.
New legislation: The coming of CDM 2015
In 2015, the HSE released a standard for construction safety known as the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, or CDM 2015, which replaced the previous legislative framework, CMD 2007. Among the key changes that the revised standard ushered in were:
- A simplified structure designed to accommodate small and medium-sized projects
- An increase in the accountability of clients on their projects
- Elimination of the role of CDM Coordinator, replaced by the new Principal Designer role.
In general, CDM 2015 has aimed to reduce bureaucracy, provide a simpler structure while maintaining the main principles that defined CMD 2007, and reduce accidents on smaller projects by instilling those principles at that level.
CDM 2015 has generally been well-received by the U.K. construction industry. The Association for Project Safety (APS), a British professional body aiming to improve and promote the professional practice of design and construction health and safety risk management, stated that CDM 2015 is “a good workable piece of legislation that, implemented properly and enforced, will make construction site workers safer and healthier.”
In further guidance issued after the legislation had come into effect, APS “strongly recommends the early appointment of the Principal Designer at the concept design stage.”
According to Dr. Mike Webster, a U.K.-based civil and structural engineer who specializes in construction and structural safety consulting and forensic services, there are elements of CDM 2015 to which people are still adjusting.
“For contractors, there is probably little change, for designers there is possibly little change. For clients, the duties became more onerous and a lot of clients are getting used to that and taking the steps needed. But there are still elements of people getting used to the principal designer role. They are working out who should be doing it, what the role actually involves, and whether they should be getting somebody in to help them it.”
Some of the main on-site challenges for the U.K. construction sector going forward will continue to be the ones that have afflicted it for a number of years, said Webster. “It’s still the work at heights (dangers) and the use of temporary structures to support excavations, etc.” Such inadequate measures are often deployed by smaller outfits “where people don’t appreciate that you need a properly engineered solution.”
The uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the U.K.’s proposed exit from the European Union, is affecting, and will continue to affect, construction activity within Britain, Webster added. “Anecdotal evidence I get from speaking with people is that there is less construction development work being commissioned at the moment. Those developers that might have been a bit more speculative are not commissioning them at the moment until they know what’s happening with Brexit.”
Traditionally, Webster added, a decrease in construction work means not only a reduction in the number of accidents but also the rate, as findings from a 2007 University of Warrick study found. “One suggestion (in the study) to explain that was that as the industry contracts, the people who are let go first are the least able ones,” he said.
Learn more about CDM 2015 at the HSE website.