The state of occupational health in construction is now very much on the agenda.
In the same week that ECA members posted their best ever reportable accident statistics (a rate of 241 accidents per 100,000 employees – down from 800 per 100,000 in 2010), results also came in from a major occupational health in building engineering services survey.
Last week the Health in Construction leadership group held the From Commitment into Action workshop, following a commitment by dozens of industry CEOs earlier this year to manage occupational health across the industry.
Our new occupational health survey is crucial to the building services engineering sector, because it will be the basis for evidence-based initiatives (rather than anecdotes) which will aim to ensure the sector can put the ‘health’ into health and safety at work.
The survey, run by the ECA, BESA and Constructing Better Health, and supported by Construction News, received nearly 400 responses, mainly from directors and managers across the building engineering services sector.
One of the issues facing the construction industry is that there isn’t a widely used ‘go to’ definition of occupational health.
To help orientate survey respondents, a ‘working definition’ of managing occupational health was offered, which was “eliminating or sufficiently controlling significant exposure to work-related physical or mental health and disease, and monitoring the effects on individuals as necessary”.
“When asked about the biggest occupational health hazards in the sector, there were few surprises”
Remarkably, only 3 per cent of respondents disagreed with this definition, which helps to put the survey findings on a firm footing.
When asked about the biggest occupational health hazards (though not necessarily exposure risks) in the sector, there were few surprises: more than nine in 10 firms cited asbestos, with nearly eight in 10 highlighting silica. Since these two airborne hazards cause thousands of fatalities in construction, the challenge is clear enough.
However, other hazards cited by respondents included noise, manual handling, vibration and contact with substances.
It was also interesting to see that more than a third cited workplace stress as a significant hazard, and a majority believed it would be more of a problem in the future.
While nearly three-quarters of firms said they are already managing occupational health effectively, only 45 per cent said they engaged in occupational health surveillance.
This is not necessarily inconsistent, but it is perhaps surprising, given that some industry players tend to regard extensive health surveillance as a sort of occupational health ‘show of strength’.
We will be looking into these findings very carefully.
Finally, we’d like to thank all those who took part in the survey, the majority of whom indicated that they manage occupational health because it’s ‘morally the right thing to do’ (although many also cited a range of business benefits).
We will be assessing the findings during the spring, and releasing fuller results during this summer.
Paul Reeve is the director of business services at the ECA