Health and safety in construction has improved significantly over the past 20 years – but the sector remains a high risk industry and there is still work to do.
Construction employs around five per cent of Britain’s workforce, yet it accounts for 22 per cent of all workplace fatalities and ten per cent of reported major injuries.
Recently published figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show there were 49 deaths in construction during 2011-12 and 23 of these fatalities involved selfemployed workers. Almost half (47 per cent) of deaths in construction involved a fall from height.
In 2010-11, there were 50 deaths in construction and over the five years to 2011-12, there was an annual average of 59 fatalities in the industry.
In addition, there were 2,230 reported major injuries involving construction employees in 2011-12, compared with 2,298 in 2010-11 and an average of 3,139 over the previous five years. The HSE noted that the number of reported injuries has been falling since 2004-05.
Meanwhile, there were an estimated 74,000 cases – including 31,000 new cases – of work-related ill health in the construction sector.
An estimated 1.7 million working days were lost to ill health and another 600,000 were lost to workplace injuries.
The HSE also said that over 5,000 cancer cases are estimated to arise each year as a result of past exposure to materials such as asbestos in the construction sector.
While the statistics are generally moving in the right direction, there is still plenty of work to be done.
In a national campaign to crackdown on site safety conducted between February and March, nearly one in five (18 per cent) construction sites failed safety checks.
HSE inspectors visited 3,237 schemes involving 4,080 contractors and found that 581 sites were using practices that put workers at risk. A total of 870 enforcement notices were served – almost half related to working at height – and in 603 instances work had to stop immediately.
In 2011, 2,128 sites were inspected and notices were served at 475 (22 per cent).
Philip White, the HSE ’s chief inspector of construction, said the year-on-year improvement was “encouraging” but the number of notices served for unsafe work at height was “still unacceptable” – particularly when safety measures in this area are well known and easy to implement.
“Too many contractors continue to put their own or other people’s lives at risk and we will not hesitate to take action where standards are not met,” he added.
“The refurbishment sector continues to be the most risky for construction workers. All too often straightforward, practical precautions are not considered and workers are put at risk. In many cases simple changes to working practices can make all the difference.”
Commenting on the 2011-12 HSE figures, Neal Stone, director of policy and communications at the British Safety Council, said: “These statistics are a stark reminder that workers are still being killed in great numbers in construction as a result of work related injuries and disease.
“The reduction in the number and incidence of fatal injuries in the construction sector has stalled – 49 fatal injuries in the sector over the course of the year, including 23 involving the self-employed workers – mirroring the figures for the previous year.
“There were an estimated 4,500 deaths in the last reported year attributable to past exposure to asbestos. HSE reports that an estimated 40 per cent of occupational cancer deaths, such as mesothelioma, were from construction. Asbestos, silica, paint and diesel exhaust are the most significant sources of carcinogens.
“The British Safety Council and its member organisations in the construction sector – some 1,400 businesses – remain totally committed to continuing the life-saving work of promoting awareness and understanding of the hazard of asbestos and other carcinogens. Asbestos is truly the hidden killer that we must not lose sight of. While the statistics concerning major and three-day injuries show an improvement, preventing death, either through disease or injury, must remain the top priority.”
Stone also believes that the figures underline the importance of good health and safety practices – and hopes the industry can learn from major schemes such as the building work for London 2012.
“We are living at a time when health and safety is getting a good kicking from some politicians and sections of the media. What the critics and cynics choose to forget is the real benefits that proportionate and effective health and safety management can deliver both to the business, the employee and the public purse. Work-related injury and ill health hurts individuals, disrupts business and adds to the workload of our health services,” he said.
“Of course, there is a need to review our health and safety laws to ensure that they remain fit for purpose. The review of the CDM Regulations currently underway and the repeal of the Tower Crane Notification and Head Protection Regulations are cases in point. Effective laws and purposeful enforcement are essential in our efforts to prevent injury and ill health. But just as it is important that we ensure that our laws do the job intended, it is also essential that we have effective regulation and enforcement.
“There is a hope that there will be a strong legacy coming from London 2012 and specifically the tremendous achievements in keeping the thousands of construction workers healthy and safe. Considerable work is being done to gather and share the knowledge and expertise from London 2012 – leadership, workforce involvement and strong communications were the building blocks for that success.
“How confident are we that the knowledge and learning coming out of London 2012 will be absorbed
and utilised across the construction sector more widely? In five years’ time we must be able to answer positively by demonstrating that the construction sector has stepped up borne out by a significant reduction in workplace injuries and workrelated ill health.”