Reports of an increase in the number of fatalities in construction have brought the question of health and safety into focus.
News of fatalities and accidents make for difficult reading, tragic for the individuals and their families and damaging to the industry.
The first question that everyone wants answered is why? How did this happen? While much of the reporting points the finger at the recent surge of activity in the industry being at the heart of the problem, it is not as straightforward as that. Many factors are at play.
Baroness Donaghy, who wrote a report on H&S in construction ‘One Death Too Many’is right - any loss of life is a tragedy, one is always too many. But inevitably as the workforce grows in line with the upturn, the number of deaths will increase too. However, the key measure is the ratio of fatalities in relation to the size of the workforce.
There were 39 fatal injuries to workers in 12/13, that last period for which we have details, and the rate per 100,000 workers was 1.9, which compares favourably with the five year average of 2.3. Rates of major injury have been falling consistently for the last five years.
While the fatalities understandably make the headlines, the industry’s health record has been far less widely reported. In many ways these are more concerning and these have become the subject of considerable attention of late.
A lot of research work is currently being undertaken by Dr Lesley Rushton for the HSE to examine and explore patterns and causes of occupational cancers that affect construction workers and that largely go unreported because like asbestos it often takes years to manifest and are not recorded as well.
A programme that completed its work at the beginning of 2014 is the Construction Dust Partnership. This has been set up toraise awareness about lung diseases related to hazardous workplace dust and to promote good practice to prevent these diseases.
As well as attempts to reduce risks and highlight some of the less known potential dangers that working on constructions sites can involve, regulatory change in the pipeline will also help to bring health and safety into the foreground, in particular for SMEs. The anticipated changes to the CDM Regulations will help address the recent shift of the majority of fatal accidents happening on smaller sites.
According to the proposed changes the full requirements of the Regs will apply once there is more than one contractor on site. This will include construction work for domestic clients. Many micro businesses and sole traders will find that they will become subject to the requirements to plan, manage and monitor the work that they are undertaking.
The HSE have given assurance that the application of the Regs will be proportionate and the practice of the plumber and the electrician discussing the planned work for a refurbished bathroom over a cup of tea should satisfy the requirements.
The change however, that will make the biggest improvement our health and safety record is a cultural one. Traditionally construction and site work in particular, evolved into a way of working that’s all about problem solving and crisis management. And indeed, much of the thrill of the job for many is looking at how to circumnavigate tricky problems that arise on the jobs. The unforeseen and the ‘unforseeables’ are perhaps the reason why building works have a developed reputation for going over budget, falling behind schedule and for exposing workers to unreasonable risk.
But approaches to projects are changing. We’re moving away from a solutions entrenched attitude to a more preventative and planning based approach.
Technology is playing a major role in this and will do even more so in the future. Building Information Modelling (BIM) will not only change the blue prints by exploring how everything will map out on the technical side, but it will also ingrain a steadfast planning and visionary mindset that will firmly place prevention and risk management at the fore. And health and safety will benefit.
Despite the recent increases in fatalities, improvements are afoot and the industry is heading in the right direction.
The target for the industry when it comes to fatalities must be zero. In fact, it should be beyond zero. We should not only be protecting workers but improving health and wellbeing where possible.
Kevin Fear is head of health, safety and environment strategy for the CITB