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Health is as crucial as safety

Having an occupational health strategy is key to the well-being of your employees

Considering your employees’ health at work could help save £760 million a year in the construction industry. That is the amount lost to ill-health according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Occupational health may cross your radar less often than safety; however both should be integral to your business.

Bad backs, respiratory problems and other illnesses due to working in construction cause an estimated 2.8 million working days to be lost every year.

Safety is often considered before health, because the effects of poor safety management can be catastrophic. But the health of an employee in the workplace should not be forgotten as problems can linger.

John Lacey, chairman of the construction group at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, says: “Some people focus on the safety aspect but health can be long-term. If you break your arm it could be nasty but it is short-term. Health problems can be irreversible.”

There are also legal requirements. The legislation involved may seem overwhelming, but put simply, an employer is required to reduce the risks to both the health and safety of employees as far as possible.

A written health and safety statement is necessary for companies with five or more people. If those who work under your direction are technically self-employed, they may still fall under your occupational health (OH) remit.

Monitoring and prevention

The statement should include who will manage ‘health surveillance’, who will advise on sickness absence, the procedure for making an appointment with an occupational health practitioner and a policy review date.

Health surveillance is the monitoring of staff for problems such as dermatitis, respiratory function, hearing and hand-arm vibration syndrome, depending on job role. It can be carried out by a day-to-day site supervisor, who would be expected to look out for potential afflictions.

The key to avoiding illness at work is prevention, says Sue Parkyn, head of construction at the HSE’s occupational health unit.

“It is about managing health risks. To prevent falls from height you put a guard rail up. In health management it is similar; it is about prevention rather than waiting for something to happen and then treating it. That would be like standing at the bottom of the scaffolding and waiting for someone to fall,” she says.

Risk management means looking at the processes you carry out, for example whether they involve heavy lifting or chemicals. Mr Lacey says: “It is sensible stuff. Look at what they are doing. Are they working plant machinery? If so, how is their eyesight and can they read a number plate?” he says.

Draw up a ‘risk map’

He suggests putting a list together of all the relevant health risks and what their causes might be, such skin disorders from paint, or burns from cement.

“For smaller contractors, I’d suggest a risk map. Assess what people will be doing, think about the risk involved and map what could cause them harm,” he says.

Once a policy is in place, each employee should have a health record. These are not medical records as they do not contain confidential medical information. Mr Lacey encourages employers to ask how their people are, on a regular basis.

“Ask people how they are and take a log of it. Talk to people as much as you can. This can be useful in case it comes back,” he says.

Working methods which reduce health risks are key, Ms Parkyn says. “You can use tools which minimise vibration, noise or dirt. Look at the model of machine you want to use in advance, then you can select the right one before you go and hire it.”

It is important to involve staff in any changes to the health policy or way of working.

Ms Parkyn says: “If they can do it in any way that is safer they should. Talk to your employees so that it is a collaborative process.”

An OH consultant can help implement health surveillance and risk management. But it need not cost a fortune.

Michelle Aldous, chief executive of Constructing Better Health, says: “It can be difficult for an SME to understand what they have to do as the minimum.” CBH is launching a free matching service for contractors with smaller OH providers.

“An OH provider can do health assessments for Ł85-Ł100 per employee per year,” she says.

Common illnesses and how to prevent them

Sue Parkyn from the HSE offers some basic advice:

Musculo-skeletal When you have a large job, think about mechanising it. Sometimes it could be more cost-effective than hiring another person or it could be quicker. For example a kerb-lifter might mean fewer people so it will pay for itself.

Noise Use hearing protectors You need to make sure they fit and that workers continue to wear them. Don’t just throw a pile of old stretched pairs into the back of a van – give people a pair that they must look after themselves.

Dermatitis Make sure there are proper washing facilities. If you hire a portable toilet see that it comes with hot water. Know what substance it is you are working with. Look at the data sheet and make sure you are wearing the right gloves.

There used to be problems with people getting dermatitis from cement, but this has gone down because of the change in the cement formula. However, it must be used before the sell-by date or it may deteriorate and it return to being a high risk formula.

Respiratory diseases Dust has been ignored quite a lot, but it is very important to monitor. Use a dust collecting device.

Hand-arm vibration syndrome There is a traffic-light system which is backed by the Hire Association of Europe. If you own tools, maintain them.

IOSH’s health and safety advice website for small businesses is at For specific substance and process advice see

Download the health and safety PDF in the resource box on the bottom of right hand side of the page