Safety has long been an industry priority, yet construction workers are 100 times more likely to die from occupational disease than from accidents. Now the industry’s leaders are coming together to drive home change.
It’s rare to look around a small auditorium and see so many chief executives of the UK’s biggest contractors and clients in one room nodding their heads in agreement. This is doubly true when the CEOs assemble to be told that their performance has not been good enough.
At a breakfast summit in January, organised by the Health in Construction Leadership Group, the CEOs of Balfour Beatty, Costain, Mace and Skanska joined more than 150 industry leaders gathered at Mayfair’s Royal Institute of Great Britain – all in agreement that they needed to up their game.
“A phrase repeated during the day was that the industry still ’shouts about safety, but whispers about health’”
So why would these CEOs gather in an iconic building on an overcast Thursday, hearing from speakers such as electrical engineer Simon Clark discuss how asbestos exposure and resultant mesothelioma brought him to death’s door years ago?
The group came together to discuss the industry’s lack of a clear focus on the ‘health’ part of health and safety.
Despite construction workers being 100 times more likely to die from occupational disease than from accidents, the industry has not tackled health to the same extent as safety.
A phrase repeated during the day was that the industry still “shouts about safety, but whispers about health”.
This industry set about tackling its poor approach to safety following the summit called by then deputy prime minister John Prescott in 2001. It has achieved some success, relative to its international peers.
While the families of the 35 people who lost their lives in the industry in 2014/15 will rightly argue the industry’s safety records have still not improved enough, it often goes overlooked that thousands of families lose a loved one to occupational illnesses each year.
Sitting in the historic Royal Institute building, the summit’s audience was told how asbestos is still responsible for 2,600 deaths each year in construction; that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall from height; and that there were 69,000 cases of self-reported illness in the industry in 2014/15, costing £1.3bn in lost work days (20 per cent were related to mental health).
The numbers that prove the need for action
- 2,600 - annual deaths in construction related to asbestos
- 169 - construction workers in Australia commit suicide annually
- 69,000 - cases of self-reported illness in the industry in 2014/15
- 14,000 - approximate number of self-reported illness related to mental health
- 100 - workers are 100 times more likely to die from occupational disease than from accidents
- 150+ - industry leaders who have pledged to eradicate ill health and disease
Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell quoted a study that revealed most people would rather admit having been to prison than having a mental health issue. Statistics like these indicate why the industry needs to challenge “everything we have done to date” when it comes to health, he added.
Speaking to a room full of chief executives and decision-makers, he raised the important point that the delegates in the room were “not representative of the people in this industry”. Those at the top of an organisation can afford regular health checks. Leaders who suffer from mental illnesses are more likely to have an idea where to seek help and, perhaps more importantly, the means to pay for it.
Health in Construction Leadership Group summit_Andy Mitchell
This is still an industry dominated by men who work hard to make a living, but often can’t afford to devote resources to their mental and occupational health. And though the younger generation coming into construction is more likely to discuss mental health issues than their parents’ generation, these younger workers are still only a small percentage of an ageing workforce that is generally reluctant to touch the subject.
Tideway takes a lead
Small steps are being taken in the right direction. Tideway has a four-pronged approach to occupational health that broadly covers the workplace, the worker’s health, the worker’s wellbeing and the communities in which they will be working, with an emphasis on prevention rather than treatment.
The Considerate Constructors Scheme runs an industry helpline for workers through wristbands it sells inscribed with a phone number so that not only can workers call to discuss personal health or financial issues, but their families can too.
But speakers including the HSE’s outgoing chair Dame Judith Hackitt asked the summit audience to think about what would be possible if they took “an industry-wide approach to health”.
“We want to support SMEs and by getting support from key influencers is one of the ways of doing that”
Heather Bryant, Balfour Beatty
One overseas example is Mates, an Australian initiative started by the industry to reach out to each of the country’s estimated 750,000 construction workers and train them to spot when colleagues might be mentally unwell. The programme’s goal is to reduce suicide rates among men in construction (it says 169 take their own lives each year) and a UK version is expected to follow.
But if the threat of occupational ill health or disease is a primary concern among workers who earn their keep doing work on the ground, why start the initiative in the boardroom with what Balfour Beatty group safety lead Heather Bryant described as the “key influencers”?
Health in Construction Leadership Group summit_Heather Bryant
“If you take contractors as an example, their supply chains are massive, from one-man bands to medium-sized companies,” she pointed out. “We have got the biggest hitters within this room with the capability of leading their organisations, sharing their knowledge and expertise within supply chains.
“Within the Health in Construction Leadership group we want to support SMEs, and getting support from key influencers is one of the ways of doing that.”
Elephant in the room
The HSE’s chief inspector of construction Peter Baker acknowledged the elephant in the room: that this industry can commit to many things, but often these priorities can get overshadowed by, for example, economic circumstance.
That’s why it was important leaders commit to recognising health on a longer-term basis, he argued. “Occupational health is not something you’ll change overnight, or in a year or two years,” he argues. “There has to be continuous commitment.
“So often you see commitments like today, but life is life, external and economic factors will drive other agendas. That’s why it’s so important that companies don’t take their eye off the ball when all the other things happen over the next decade and start to drive industry in other ways.”
“It’s important that companies don’t take their eye off the ball when all the other things happen over the next decade and start to drive industry in other ways”
Peter Baker, HSE
The industry must also adopt a consistent approach to health, it was argued, rather than 100 different companies setting 100 different standards.
Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme said there needed to be a realisation that health requires research and understanding to know more about the environments people are working in and how to eliminate those risks at source.
A John Prescott moment for health
Read deputy editor Tom Fitzpatrick’s CN Briefing on the Health in Construction Leadership Group summit.
The fact that so many senior people have come together is recognition of the seriousness of the topic, but also the appetite to improve, he added.
As the event drew to a close, more than 150 industry leaders pledged their commitment to the health agenda by nominating someone in their business who will take on health as an area of responsibility. They will regroup in April to formulate an industry-wide action plan for health.
Mr Baker said: “It would be great to see industry get together quickly and work on collaborating so people don’t go away and do too much, too quickly.
“This isn’t the same as safety; it’s the same priority, but you have to approach occupational health differently. [The contractors] are competitors sometimes but they need to be prepared to share knowledge and there was that commitment today to share.”
Mr Wolstenholme argued that the day should go down in the history books as the moment when industry started to genuinely tackle health and had a lightbulb moment to change its approach.
Tideway’s Mr Mitchell perhaps summed up the new mindset required: ask yourself, rather than in safety terms, what does a near-miss look like in health?