Construction health and safety has improved significantly over the last 20 years, but the industry remains high risk and there is still work to be done.
Construction employs about 5% of the workforce in the UK, but it accounts for 22% of all workplace fatalities and 10% of reported major injuries.
According to recently released figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there were 49 construction fatalities in 2011-12, with 23 of these fatalities involving self-employed workers. Almost half (47%) of construction fatalities involved a fall from a great height.
In 2010-11, there were 50 construction fatalities, with an annual average of 59 fatalities in the industry over the five years to 2011-12.
Furthermore, there were 2,230 reported major injuries involving construction workers in 2011-12, compared to 2,298 in 2010-11 and a five-year average of 3,139. Since 2004-05, the number of reported injuries has been decreasing, according to the HSE.
Meanwhile, there were an estimated 74,000 cases of work-related illness in the construction sector, including 31,000 new cases.
A total of 1.7 million working days were lost due to illness, with another 600,000 lost due to workplace injuries.
According to the HSE, over 5,000 cancer cases are estimated to occur each year as a result of previous exposure to materials such as asbestos in the construction industry.
While the statistics are generally improving, there is still a lot of work to be done.
During a national crackdown on construction site safety between February and March, nearly one-fifth (18%) of construction sites failed safety checks.
HSE inspectors visited 3,237 schemes involving 4,080 contractors and discovered 581 sites employing practises that endanger workers. A total of 870 enforcement notices were issued, nearly half of which were related to working at heights, and in 603 cases, work had to be stopped immediately.
In 2011, 2,128 sites were inspected, and 475 notices were issued (22 per cent).
The HSE’s chief inspector of construction, Philip White, said the year-on-year improvement was “encouraging,” but the number of notices served for unsafe work at height was “still unacceptable,” especially since safety measures in this area are well known and simple to implement.
“Too many contractors continue to endanger their own or others’ lives, and we will not hesitate to take action where standards are not met,” he added.
“The refurbishment sector remains the most dangerous for construction workers.” All too often, simple, practical precautions are overlooked, putting workers at risk. Simple changes in working practises can make all the difference in many cases.”
“These statistics are a stark reminder that workers are still being killed in large numbers in construction as a result of work-related injuries and disease,” said Neal Stone, director of policy and communications at the British Safety Council, in response to the 2011-12 HSE figures.
“The reduction in the number and incidence of fatal injuries in the construction sector has stalled – 49 fatal injuries in the sector this year, including 23 involving self-employed workers – mirroring the figures from the previous year.”
“Asbestos exposure caused an estimated 4,500 deaths in the most recent reported year.” According to the HSE, construction is responsible for an estimated 40% of occupational cancer deaths, such as mesothelioma. Carcinogens are most commonly found in asbestos, silica, paint, and diesel exhaust.
“The British Safety Council and its construction sector member organisations – approximately 1,400 businesses – remain completely committed to continuing the life-saving work of raising awareness and understanding of the dangers of asbestos and other carcinogens.” Asbestos is a true hidden killer that must not be overlooked. While statistics for major and three-day injuries are improving, preventing death from disease or injury must remain the top priority.”
Stone also believes that the figures emphasise the importance of good health and safety practises, and he hopes that the industry can learn from major projects such as the London 2012 construction work.
“We live in a time when some politicians and sections of the media are slamming health and safety. What critics and cynics fail to recognise are the real benefits that proportionate and effective health and safety management can provide to businesses, employees, and the public purse. Work-related injury and illness harm individuals, disrupt businesses, and increase the workload on our health-care system, he said.
“Of course, our health and safety laws must be reviewed to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.” The current review of the CDM Regulations, as well as the repeal of the Tower Crane Notification and Head Protection Regulations, are two examples. Effective laws and effective enforcement are critical in our efforts to prevent injury and illness. But, just as it is critical that our laws do their intended job, it is also critical that we have effective regulation and enforcement.
“There is hope that London 2012 will leave a strong legacy, particularly the tremendous achievements in keeping thousands of construction workers healthy and safe.” Significant effort is being expended to collect and disseminate knowledge and expertise from London 2012 – leadership, workforce involvement, and strong communications were the foundations for that success.
“How confident are we that the knowledge and learning gained from London 2012 will be absorbed and applied more broadly across the construction sector?” In five years, we must be able to respond positively by demonstrating that the construction industry has stepped up, as evidenced by a significant reduction in workplace injuries and ill health.”