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Construction's most common medical conditions: What to do

From 2014 to 2017, some 80,000 construction workers reported suffering from a medical condition caused or made worse by their work. Lucy Alderson looks at the most common problems – and best practice for tackling them.

Between 2014 and 2017, 3.5 per cent of the industry’s workforce suffered from a medical condition they believe was caused or made worse by their work, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Of these 80,000-odd cases, musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority (65 per cent), while some 15 per cent reported suffering with stress, depression or anxiety.

Over the four years in question, the HSE reports that 1.9m working days were lost in the industry due to cases of work-related ill health.

To combat the causes of these conditions and tackle their impact on productivity, many industry firms are stepping up their onsite measures while also educating workers on how to minimise the risks.

Here we look at the four most commonly reported medical problems. 

Musculoskeletal disorders

From 2011 to 2017, around 2.2 per cent of the industry’s workforce suffered from a musculoskeletal disorder they believed to be work-related. This rose to 3.6 per cent among those working in the skilled trades, HSE data shows.

One contractor, Clugston Construction, has made particular progress in raising awareness of the condition across the company and its supply chain.

In 2015 the contractor won the Health and Safety Initiative of the Year category at the CN Awards for its 5-a-Day initiative. This programme highlights five health issues to tackle: noise, dermatitis, musculoskeletal issues, problems caused by hand-arm vibration, and respiratory problems.

The workforce is given medical check-ups covering musculoskeletal conditions as well as a various aspects of health and wellbeing, while Clugston also conducts awareness meetings to make workers aware of the risks and how to reduce them.

Clugston Construction at EfW energy-from-waste facility

Clugston Construction at EfW energy-from-waste facility

Clugston is among the firms to increase their focus on musculoskeletal disorders

Stress, depression, anxiety

On average, 0.6 per cent of the industry workforce reported suffering from stress, depression or anxiety said to be linked to their work between 2011 and 2017. This figure fell to 0.4 per cent among the skilled trades, according to the HSE. 

While the number actively reporting these conditions may be low, CN investigations into mental health suggest the true number of those suffering could be significantly higher.

CN’s 2018 mental health survey revealed that nearly a third (30 per cent) of construction workers have taken time off work due to mental health issues. Yet of these workers, 63 per cent said they had hidden the real reason for their absence from their employer.

Industry firms can roll out a number of different initiatives to support employees, including toolbox talks on mental health awareness, signposting the help that’s available across sites, and offering training for employees to become mental health first aiders.

Breathing and lung problems

From 2009 to 2017, 3,000 workers in construction suffered from breathing and lung problems they said was caused or made worse by work.

Of these workers, 20 per cent said dust from stone, cement, bricks or concrete contributed to their condition. Developing occupational asthma can also be a risk for construction workers, especially when they are exposed to materials such as wood dust.

Making sure operatives most at risk to high levels of dust have respiratory protective equipment (such as dust masks) is one way of protecting the workforce. Using water suppression equipment on tools can also help, as water dampens down dust clouds.

Lungs lung disease cancer biological health medicine medical body torso chest

Lungs lung disease cancer biological health medicine medical body torso chest

Lung diseases and occupation cancers are among the industry’s most common conditions

Occupational cancer deaths

Construction has the highest rate of workers dying of occupational cancer (3,500 a year) of any industry in the UK.

The majority of these deaths were reported to have been caused by past exposure to asbestos and silica.

Research conducted by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in April this year revealed one in four construction workers say they have been exposed to asbestos, with two-thirds unaware that this exposure can cause cancer.

Raising awareness is vital to driving down these numbers, with the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health among those leading the way.

Its No Time To Lose campaign aims to educate the workforce about occupational cancer and its causes. The organisation has produced workplace posters, information cards for workers, action flowcharts and other information that is freely available.

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