Major construction projects help drive up health standards, study finds

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Major construction projects can help develop “universally high” health management standards throughout the supply chain, a study has concluded.

A three-year research project that examined the effects of health and wellbeing interventions on staff working on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, London’s new “super sewer”, concluded that such projects have the potential to “upskill” the workforce when construction managers are supported by occupational health and health and safety professionals.

Researchers from Loughborough University were integrated into each of the construction teams working on the project and monitored key health and safety processes, personnel, documentation, events and activities.

Interventions included working with occupational hygienists to improve understanding about health risks and how to manage them, as well as training sessions for project managers, engineers, supervisors and others who contribute to risk assessments, with a focus on practical control measures.

Major developments also help raise standards throughout the supply chain, it argued. The study, Raising the bar for occupational health management in construction, said it was important that major construction firms ensured their subcontractors proritised employee health and wellbeing. At Tideway, for example, subcontractors were required to put their own health check arrangements in place, encouraging them to “take ownership” of occupational health provision.

However, this had potential to fragment health data further, the research paper warned, and it emphasised the importance of “joining-up” workers’ health records.

“Such arrangements would also enable the industry to collect more accurate data on work related ill health to understand fully the scale of the problem,” the paper suggested.

Alistair Gibb, professor of construction engineering management at Loughborough University, said there was often a poor understanding about the standards of legally required health assessments across the construction industry.

“Major projects such as Tideway are critical to developing universally high health management standards and are well-placed to champion good OH services and to use their expertise and influence to embed change within their own supply chains,” he said.

“To achieve long-lasting improvements, these standards must be adopted throughout the sector, particularly within the SMEs which employ the majority of the workforce.”

Further training for frontline workers was also needed, particularly around noise and respirable dust.

Mary Ogungbeje, research manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety & Health, said that high health and safety standards in construction should be the norm, not exceptional practice, in construction.

“The study highlights practical measures to help all stakeholders address barriers and improve the management of health risks in construction,” she said.

Steve Hails, director of health, safety and wellbeing at Tideway, said achieving parity between health and safety was one of the project’s objectives.

He said: “The support from IOSH and Loughborough University has been invaluable in identifying our progress. This unique approach to conducting a longitudinal study with skilled researchers embedded into our construction teams, has allowed us to compile legacy information in real time rather than, as has historically been the case, at the end of the project. This gives Tideway objective feedback during our works and informs our future direction.

“There are additional wider industry benefits for future projects to learn from our experiences through this approach and realising the benefits of industry working collaboratively with academia during the planning and construction phases of work.”

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