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Vaughan Burnand on occupational health

The industry needs to adopt a more mature approach to occupational health, writes Vaughan Burnand

Gone are the days when it was accepted that construction work can make you ill. We no longer accept that working in construction will play havoc on your body and will more than likely wear you out well before retirement.

But I still see workers breaking out concrete without ear defenders, lifting weights which make my eyes water and kneeling in cement without any protection at all. More people die annually in this industry from occupational health diseases than safety related incidents.

We have moved on in this industry. We have learned much from the health hazards, which have historically killed or disabled our workers. We still have a lot more to do.

Many of us are working proactively to prevent, manage and rehabilitate. The Major Contractors Group wants to create a long-term positive legacy for workers and has made a commitment to reduce the incidence rate of work-related ill-health of its direct employees and monitor progress by measuring the number of days lost due to sickness absence.

This is being achieved through the implementation of the MCG’s Occupational Health Strategy.
The strategy recognises the traditional construction health issues: noise, vibration, musculoskeletal disorders and dermatitis. We have introduced many initiatives to help address these issues both within our companies and for industry as a whole. We believe, for example, that all users of hand-held tools should be provided with the real-life vibration data for the equipment that they use to enable them to accurately assess exposure times. Working with Operc, we now have a database – which is available to all – providing this data along with its productivity levels.

But the health of the workers within the industry is affected by more than the traditional construction hazards. We have seen that from the an analysis of the work carried out on Terminal 5 and the Constructing Better Health pilot, that many of our workers are challenged by ‘lifestyle’ and ‘general health’ issues. It seems that many of our workers suffer from obesity, heart disease, diabetes and poor general levels of fitness.

So what can we do to address this? There is no simple answer but there are a number of approaches we can take.

As an industry we should take a holistic approach – it is important that we (and the workers) know the health of our workforce. We are all accountable for preventing further issues. I welcome a sensible and clear approach to managing occupational health and to set a level playing field for occupational health management standards, including making sure we have a better understanding of what occupational health practitioners should provide us.

I hope we can all raise the level of awareness of health issues in our workforce. Every individual should be responsible for his general health and I hope we can provide people with the right tools and advice to help themselves. We need to be less macho and more mature.

I would also welcome more occupational health providers with a better understanding of the industry and its health issues. Ideally they would provide all parties with a proactive and risk-led approach to managing health issues.

It is important that we communicate health issues in a non-confrontational way. This is not about preventing people from continuing working but about making sure the industry takes responsibility for its workforce and provides opportunities for all without risking their health.

At Shepherd we have begun to put our directly paid employees through health screening to establish a base for them and us. This has led to both the company and the individual having a better understanding of worker health and fitness for work.

We will benefit from these approaches in the longer term when occupational health information is carried by the worker on his skills card and can be added to when updates are carried out. This will be a vital tool in helping to prevent harm.

We are working collaboratively and there are many initiatives both public and private seeking to address this issue and equally there are many examples of clients and contractors adopting successful occupational health strategies.

This has to be an industry-wide issue supported from all parts of the construction supply chain. There is no room for those who just let others tackle the issue, while they ignore it. We saw the folly of that with CSCS cards. Let’s not do it again with something as precious as the well being of our workforce.

Vaughan Burnand is chief executive of Shepherd Construction and chairman of the MCG Health and Safety Committee