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Workers condemn 'cancerous culture’ of long hours

Industry workers have slammed the industry’s approach to long hours as “cancerous” as part of research into working conditions conducted by Construction News.

Site and office workers in a variety of roles shared their experiences for CN’s research, which follows recent investigations into conditions on major projects such as Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium and the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route.

A number of workers from across the industry reported frequently working shifts upwards of 12 hours as project deadlines approached, which had a significant impact on their wellbeing when combined with factors such as commuting distance and unsociable hours.

One respondent to CN’s research said: “I’m based in an office and when we’re compiling tenders we regularly start at 7am, finish at 10pm and then have to commute on top.

“It’s expected, as contracts are written with ‘as and when required’ clauses and everyone is automatically opted out of the working time directive.

“There is still a cancerous culture that long hours [means you are] dedicated, doing your contracted hours [means] you are a slacker.”

Another worker from the rail sector told CN: “I have on quite a few occasions experienced 18-19 hours on site then home for a nap and back in for 7am, which [gave] me approximately three hours’ sleep.”

In-depth: Fatigue in construction

Lucy Alderson asks: just how dangerous is the industry’s long-hours culture for health and safety?

Concerns were raised among respondents over the impact of fatigue resulting from long hours.

One employee told CN: “Productivity drops dramatically after eight hours, but sites frequently work ‘standard’ 12-hour shifts; [they] rarely achieve the outputs they assume, or factor in a reduced output which they pay premium rate for.

“You then need to factor in the travelling time at each end of the shift.

“It is no wonder there are high accident and mental health problems in the industry. On one project I worked 80-hour weeks for three months straight and was a wreck at the end of it.”

Duncan Spencer, head of information and intelligence at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, warned of the dangers long hours pose to staff.

“I am not surprised by CN’s research,” he said.

“With the complexities of contracting and subcontracting, and in a culture of, ‘Don’t question or you won’t get the work’, workers so often find themselves in a cleft stick.

“Leaving and finding another job is not an option, since this kind of practice is very commonplace – [workers] would potentially be leaping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“It is plainly unsafe to work people to unrealistic deadlines and for long hours. Fatigued people make mistakes and are more prone to accidents. It can also harm their health.”

Barhale director Lisa Curran, who has a background in occupational medicine, questioned whether long shifts could be effective.

“I doubt a person would be able to work efficiently for that amount of time, and I would expect their productivity [to be] low,” Dr Curran said.

“We know that accident rates are higher the less rest you get.

“I think the whole industry would have to shift at the same time to put a culture change in place.”

A spokesperson for Network Rail, which has specific rules regarding working hours and checks to ensure its supply chain is complying with directives, said it had recently revised standards to address long hours.

“Fatigue can have a hugely detrimental effect on workers’ mental and physical health,” they said.

“Through our Fatigue Improvement Programme, we are revising our standard to better manage fatigue risk and further improve the safety of our workforce.

“Under the revised standard, when an employee’s door-to-door hours go beyond 12 hours in a day, a group management plan must be agreed by the employee and their line manager, and where it goes beyond 14 hours an individual plan must be put in place.

“In adopting this risk-based approach, we introduce shared responsibilities and engender willing compliance.” 

Readers' comments (2)

  • Will it change? No!

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  • 40 or so years ago, when I started in the industry, it was commonplace to work 12hrs plus a day and I mean physically work those hours. So let's be under no illusions, in a world where sub-contractors are employed to do the work, it has been my experience that NO-ONE actually physically works even 12 hours a day. Arrive on site between 8 and 9 am, first thing to be done is have a cup of tea or coffee. Lunch usually follows 3 & half hours later, followed by tea at 3 o'clock, before going home at 4:30pm the latest. If that's considered long hours then I'm only too glad I'm retired, from an industry that employs a bunch of softies.

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