Constructing a healthier industry

The construction industry is starting to take employees’ wellbeing seriously, says Paul Reeve.

Ensuring workplace health is a major contribution to the social and economic aspects of sustainable development.  So it’s very encouraging to see recent progress on occupational health in UK construction.  

In 2001, the construction industry was told to “get its health and safety act together or face legislation” by then-deputy prime minister John Prescott. Commercial UK construction has responded well, but workplace health management hasn’t kept up.

It’s easy to see why: a mobile workforce of employees, agency workers and the self-employed means most construction companies are not sure how – or whether – to manage their workers’ health. Change could be on the way, though, and two big drivers have been focused stakeholder involvement and standardisation.  

 

A new standard

Standardisation can underpin industry-wide improvement. According to Margaret Grahamslaw, B&CE head of occupational health: “Construction must unify its approach if it is serious about improving occupational health.”  

A common baseline for construction health surveillance, brokered by B&CE with widespread industry support, is set for 2019. It should mean that clients, contractors and health assessors understand and agree on what needs to be done in this area, and provide a readily-repeatable assessment process. 

Key aims include enabling the health surveillance of hundreds of thousands of construction workers and giving employers, employees and the wider industry the information needed to protect workers and extend their working lives. The baseline will cover:

  • Blood pressure and vision  
  • As required: hearing, respiratory, skin and Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) assessment. 

 

Stakeholder expectation

In a competitive industry, standardisation wouldn’t make waves without stakeholder involvement. Several years ago, Clive Johnson, group head of health and safety at property developer Landsec – along with others in a newly-formed Health in Construction Leadership Group – set out to recreate the 2001 Prescott safety summit, targeting occupational health. In 2017, they invited construction CEOs to a summit and asked them to commit to a change in the way construction deals with occupational health. A specific commitment – to deliver an agreed, cost-effective route to widespread construction health surveillance – paved the way for the B&CE initiative.  

 
Cultural change

As the big players in commercial construction committed to tackling the industry’s respiratory and musculoskeletal injury problems, they also focused on mental health. 

The 2017 summit introduced ‘Mates in Mind’ with the support of the British Safety Council. This and other initiatives such as Building Mental Health have unlocked industry dialogue, training and support in this area, and given rise to the ‘Mental Health First Aider’. The last two years have arguably seen more progress on mental health issues in construction than the history of organised building.  

In sustainability circles, we are used to pursuing continual improvement. In 2019, we could see construction turn from an occupational health laggard into one of the UK industry’s frontrunners. This would be good news for employees, employers and the UK economy – and for sustainable development. 


Time for change

At the 2017 health summit, construction CEOs committed to tackling ill health, including mental ill health, in construction. 

  • UK construction workers are at least 100 times more likely to die from an occupational disease than from an accident
  • Up to 1.2m working days are lost annually due to work-related ill health in construction 
  • The rate of suicide in construction is well above the national industry average. 

Source: HCLG ‘Health in Construction’ initiative 


Paul Reeve, FIEMA is director of business at ECA

Author: 

Paul Reeve is director of business and external affairs at the Electrical Contractors' Association (ECA), where he has also held the role of hed of health, safety and environment. His current role includes sustainability, energy and corporate social responsibility policy, as well as public affairs and public relations.

Reeve has previously also worked for the EEF, the Chemical Industries Association and ICI, and he is a Fellow of IEMA, IOSH and the RSC.

Reeve originally conceived and produced the IEMA Associate membership course and examination and along with Paul Hyde, he jointly authored the textbook Essentials of environmental management. He is also an advisor to certification body Exova BM Trada.

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