The supply chain structure of the construction industry makes occupational health (OH) complicated. The mobility and transience of the industry’s workforce, and the misconception among employers that OH will cost huge amounts of money and lead to big increases in civil claims, mean that health is often placed in the ‘too difficult’ box.
To get a better understanding of the levels of awareness and commitment, Constructing Better Health (CBH), the not-for-profit organisation tasked with improving health in the construction industry, recently commissioned research into attitudes towards health at construction companies.
The results from more than 750 construction companies reveal significant gaps in health surveillance and assessment, and highlight significant opportunities for OH professionals.
Health v safety
The general opinion of respondents to the survey is that safety is deemed more important than health in the construction industry. However, when commenting on their own companies, almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) felt health and safety were given equal importance. While the responses would indicate that health is taken more seriously than it was, the majority (79%) still want health to be given a greater priority.
“It’s interesting that respondents rate their own company’s concern higher than the industry in general,” says Michelle Aldous, chief executive of CBH. “We’re concerned that the construction industry in general continues to place a lower priority on health than safety.
“When you consider the very serious risks presented to workers’ health by issues such as dust, vibration and noise, and the legal obligation on employers to protect their employees, there really is no excuse for this lack of attention.
“Because health and safety are often dealt with together, some firms may feel that they’re ticking the ‘h&s’ box by dealing with the risk of accidents, but this can leave workers dangerously exposed to health risks in the workplace.”
A health surveillance system is essential for workers who are likely to come into contact with hazardous substances, or be exposed to noise, vibration or radiation through their work. For this reason, CBH expected a high number of respondents to have health surveillance systems. In fact, just under half of respondents (49%) claimed to have health surveillance policies in place. Of those that didn’t have one, 40% were unsure why this was the case, and 28% felt it was due to a lack of expert knowledge.
“I’m disappointed that not more construction companies have health surveillance policies in place,” says Aldous. “We really need to see many more firms taking occupational health seriously and introducing systems. There is clearly a need to improve awareness of the expertise we have available in the OH industry because more than one-quarter of respondents claimed that a lack of expert knowledge was the reason why they didn’t have a health surveillance policy.”
OH training is patchy
The levels of OH training within construction firms varied, with almost half of respondents claiming they had received OH training within the past year. However, three in 10 (31%) claimed to have never received any such training.
“We’re particularly concerned about the 31% of respondents who claim they’ve never received occupational health training,” says Aldous. “It implies there are some organisations that aren’t taking the health of their workers as seriously as they should. Health training is a key part of any OH programme and can be implemented very easily.”
Sources of OH advice vary
The survey revealed that more work may be needed on raising awareness of the sources of OH information, with almost half of respondents (44%) claiming that they wouldn’t know where to go for impartial and confidential advice regarding OH. In terms of sources of information, 69% would turn to their company, 59% to industry bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive and IOSH, and 45% to industry websites.
The good news for providers of OH advice, both within companies and via industry bodies, is that 84% of respondents rated the advice they received as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’.
Musculoskeletal conditions are common in the construction industry and are estimated to cost the UK £5.5bn every year. They are also thought to be responsible for one-quarter of the working days lost through absence.
In the CBH survey of construction firms, musculoskeletal hazards were the least assessed, compared to hazardous substances (86%), noise hazards (85%), respiratory hazards (81%), and vibration hazards (78%).
“While most respondents claim that health risk assessments are undertaken, musculoskeletal hazards receive the least attention. This is despite the financial cost to society of musculoskeletal problems and the personal pain and disruption caused,” says Aldous.
Key role for OH
Aldous believes that this research highlights a great opportunity for OH providers.
“The findings of this research, the pilot that CBH ran when it began, and our experience with large-scale construction projects, such as the building of Terminal 5 at Heathrow, all point to the fact that the vast majority of people in the construction industry want to do more for the health of their workers.
“The industry has some particular challenges when it comes to occupational health,” says Aldous. “Rightly, in these firms there is generally a strong focus on safety, but this can mean that health is relegated to second place on the list of priorities. With serious health risks presented by noise, dust and vibration, proper OH policies and surveillance is critical. Unlike accidents and safety issues, ill health is not immediate and can take many years to manifest itself.
“It’s clear from this research that the construction industry needs help from occupational health specialists. At Constructing Better Health, we need OH service providers to come on board to help deal with this need.”