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Dangerously tired: What fatigue is doing to the industry

Working 80-hour weeks and 18-hour days are just some of the on-the-job experiences shared with CN. Just how dangerous is this long-hours culture for health and safety? Lucy Alderson investigates.

It’s 5am. The shrill ring of your alarm puts an end to five hours of sleep. You get up, eat, dress and leave the house at six.

It takes an hour-and-a-half to drive to site. Another 12-hour shift later, you clock off at 8pm and make your way home.

Getting in around half nine, you make a sandwich and a cup of tea. By the time you’ve eaten and showered, it’s 11.30. You go to bed, exhausted.

You do this every day, six days a week, for five months.

It could be that this is a typical routine for more construction workers than we think.

CN investigations have uncovered job adverts for roles involving 80-hour weeks on major projects including the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium. Workers claim they have left these schemes due to poor working conditions, exhaustion and overcrowding on site.

These are not unique cases. Dozens of workers have told us of their own experiences on other jobs – some involving 18-hour working days.

It begs the question: what impact could these extreme working hours be having on workforce health and site safety?

How long do we really work?

In May 2018, an Office for National Statistics report found the construction industry ranked third for highest average hours worked per week, at 36.8. This was behind agriculture, forestry and fishing on 42.4, and mining, energy and water on 37.1.

However, the figure for construction could be much higher, according to the Chartered Institute of Building. It surveyed 918 chartered members last December about mental health, with one section focusing on hours worked per week.

Only one in seven (14 per cent) said they worked fewer than 40 hours a week, with 45 per cent reporting an average of 41-50 hours. Around 29 per cent worked 51-60 hours a week and 13 per cent said it was more than 60. On top of that, 44 per cent said they travelled 2-3 hours a day to work and back.

The law on working hours

Irwin Mitchell employment partner Sybille Steiner outlines the law on working hours.

“If someone is a worker or an employee, there is a weekly limit of 48 hours that they can work, which is calculated as an average over 17 weeks. There are also daily and weekly rest breaks they should take.

“After six hours they should have a rest break of 20 minutes. There should be an 11-hour rest break per day and a 24-hour rest break per week (or a 48-hour rest break per fortnight).

“It is possible for a person to opt out of this weekly limit of 48 hours, which needs to be done in writing. The employer cannot put pressure on the employee to sign this. However, if an employee decides to opt out, this does not allow the employer to treat that person like a slave. There is a common law duty to protect the health and safety of workers.”

The head of health and safety at one major contractor, who asked to remain nameless, estimates that, on average, construction workers put in 50 hours a week, not counting weekends and overtime.

He views the ONS figure of 36.8 as deceptively low. “That may be what people are contracted to, but the reality is people do more than that,” he says. “For example, project managers may not be physically on site, but they tend never to stop working […] programmes have become so tight now and every possible working hour has become necessary.”

The true impact

Although there is a dearth of research on the impact of fatigue on construction health and safety in particular, some work has been done to better understand the issue.

A 2003 report by Loughborough and Manchester universities for the Health and Safety Executive analysed 100 construction accidents. The behaviour, capability and actions of workers were found to have contributed to more than two-thirds of them. Fatigue or worker health was accountable in seven of the 100 accidents.

Focus groups were held with groups including clients, operatives and project managers to discuss the research. They found that “long-hours culture in the industry results in fatigue, compromised decision-making, productivity and safety”.

Research by the University of Bath reached similar conclusions.

In a 2007 study, 95 workers on a rail project in Vancouver wore digital monitors that recorded their sleep activity for seven days. The majority (37 per cent) were getting six to seven hours of sleep each day, with 16 per cent recording five to six hours and 5 per cent getting fewer than five. A further 125 workers were surveyed on their sleeping patterns rather than monitored.

The university’s report estimated that inadequate sleep increased the risk of accident by almost 9 per cent, rising to 10 per cent among site workers.

“Project managers may not be physically on site, but they tend never to stop working […] programmes have become so tight now and every possible working hour has become necessary”

While data on this issue is in short supply, the experiences of those who have worked long hours build a picture of the impact on both physical and mental wellbeing.

One worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, told CN that long shifts drove him off the civils project he worked on from January to March this year, during which time he worked 65 hours a week. He says working such hours over a sustained period affects concentration levels – vital for those in safety-critical roles, such as operating plant.

“I turned to my colleagues and said, ‘I can’t do this’,” he recalls. “It’s ok when the weather is good and you’re on target. But when the other factors start to mount up [such as work running behind], hours become very debilitating.”

CN has heard dozens more accounts of workers trying to maintain exhausting working patterns – from site operatives to office staff.

“When we’re compiling tenders we regularly do 7am-10pm with commuting on top,” says one office-based worker, citing the industry’s mindset that if you are not going beyond your contract hours, you are slacking.

One civils worker says it is “quite common” to work 12-hour shifts on rail projects without a break. “On quite a few occasions, I’ve experienced 18-19 hours on site to then go home for a nap and be back in for 7am,” they say. “In these cases, I’ve had three hours’ sleep. This is the sad reality.”

Osborne head of safety, health and environment Jay Johnston says the impact of fatigue is starting to be recognised by the industry. “Construction is a dynamic environment in which things are constantly changing,” he says. “If your cognitive abilities are impaired in this environment, then this makes fatigue a big issue.”

So what’s preventing the industry from tackling this long-hours culture?

Why is this culture in place?

Mr Johnston suggests many workers put in the hours simply due to the way they are paid. “People work longer hours […] largely because most construction workers are paid hourly, which makes people want to work more,” he says.

Yet this does not mean their employers should allow longer shifts, he adds. “It doesn’t matter if operatives want longer hours. Employers have a legal duty to look after the health and safety of people on our sites.”

Tight schedules is another factor, argues the head of H&S at a major contractor. “Programmes now are so tight and often we need people in at the last moment to help projects out,” he says.

“I turned to my colleagues and said, ‘I can’t do this’. When the factors start to mount up [such as work running behind], hours become very debilitating”

If the programme suffers a setback, pressure can be put on the workforce to make up for lost time. “We don’t build much resilience into planning for projects,” he says. “To win the project, you go in fairly lean. Then, if the schedule is affected in some way […] it puts enormous pressure on everyone working on it.”

However, pressure on workers to put in these excessive hours can vary from trade to trade.

Lyndon Scaffolding chief executive Rob Lynch says his company has never faced having to work 75-80 hours a week, adding that there is greater recognition in his sector of the impact exhaustion can have on scaffolders.

If a scaffolder is experiencing fatigue or is overworked, they could be more likely to have an accident while working at height, he says.  They also may be more likely to lose concentration and drop equipment, injuring someone below. 

While accepting there may be more pressure towards the end of projects, Mr Lynch believes most main contractors and clients recognise that making scaffolders work excessive hours will reduce productivity.

“Inevitably you of get a lot of pressure at the end of the job,” Mr Lynch says. “People recognise that they want scaffolders on site that are physically productive. When you’re tired and physically exhausted, you can’t be productive […] working long shifts doesn’t get the best out of people in the long run.”

What the industry can do

Monitoring working hours is an essential part of health and safety, the head of H&S at a major contractor points out.

But for this to work in practice, he says companies need to talk to each other to ensure operatives are not doing day shifts at one site then going straight to another for a night shift with a different contractor. “This is unacceptable. I’ve not seen it recently, but it has happened and I don’t doubt it is still happening across the industry. Unfortunately we’re not sharing information, so how can we make sure someone is not going from a day shift on one job to another night shift?”

Clients can also help ensure hours are monitored and limits set. Network Rail, for example, is developing a revised standard on fatigue to be in place by December next year. If an operative is working 12-14 hours a day, a fatigue management plan will be put in place. 

While work is being done on this issue, the industry needs to speed up its progress, Mr Johnston argues.

“The construction industry has always been the last to change things,” he says.

“We are changing, but we’re doing it slowly.”

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