Any responsible business involved in the delivery of construction projects will tell you that building site health and safety is of paramount importance.
Building sites are very dangerous places to work. Construction jobs, whether a residential scheme, office development or infrastructure venture, are complex undertakings.
Workers are constantly moving heavy machinery and bulky materials about, performing demolition and excavations, and doing a range of different tasks. The risk of injury or worse is always present.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s national regulator for workplace safety, publishes figures for those injured or killed at work across the country’s construction sites, and a report it released in December 2021 said the fatal injury rate—1.62 per 100,000 workers—was around four times the “all industry” rate.
Main construction work-related health risks
Of the 39 fatalities reported by the HSE in the 12 months up to March 2021, half resulted from workers falling from height—regularly the cause of the majority of construction deaths—with another 34% resulting from individuals being trapped or crushed by something, or by being hit or struck by a moving vehicle or object.
Additionally, some 61,000 non-fatal injuries a year were reported over the three-year period between 2018-19 to 2020-21, according to the HSE. While this reflected what the executive called a “downward trend,” it is still a figure the industry acknowledges it needs to address.
The HSE says there have been “big improvements over recent years in reducing the number and rate of injuries to construction workers,” but there is no room for complacency.
Industry-designed training programmes have been at the forefront of efforts to raise and maintain health and safety standards, and companies make strenuous efforts to ensure their staff know what is expected of them.
While everyone involved in a construction project has a duty to ensure their safety and that of their colleagues—from the client down to the contractor—the individual in charge of keeping everyone onsite in good health is likely to be a site manager or supervisor.
From a regulatory perspective, the health and safety aspects of any development work is covered by the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2015, also known as CDM 2015.
Responsibilities and duties
The HSE sets out the duties of stakeholders on a given project regarding CDM 2015. These responsibilities vary depending on the role of the stakeholder in any given project.
For example, a designer must ensure that when they prepare or change their designs, they “eliminate, reduce or control foreseeable risks that may arise during construction, along with the maintenance and use of a building once it is built.”
They should also “provide information to other members of the project team to help them fulfil their duties.”
Meanwhile, a contractor who carries out the actual building work must “plan, manage and monitor construction work under their control so it is carried out without risks to health and safety.”
For those projects involving more than one contractor, the regulations state they must coordinate their activities with others in the project team and “comply with directions given to them by the principal designer or principal contractor.”
When there is a single contractor on a project, they need to prepare a construction phase plan.
Get the right information
When planning a project, the HSE says it is important to gather as much health and safety information about the development and proposed site before work starts.
The HSE spells out what should be considered when planning a development, including any potential hazards that may arise during the work.
“The job will have a better chance of running more smoothly, efficiently and profitably if hazards have been predicted, planned for and controlled from the outset. Having to stop or reschedule work to deal with emergencies wastes time and money,” it says.
Once construction work commences, the practicalities of risk kick in. The HSE says consideration needs to be given to the potential for slips and trips, where walkways need to be clear of obstruction and surfaces dry and even.
When working at height, the HSE calls on employers to “ensure equipment is suitable, stable and strong enough for the job, maintained and checked regularly.”
Other areas of potential concern include the structural stability of the project; the safety of those working on excavations and demolition; lifting equipment and materials; and the presence of vehicles on site.
Can automation solve the problem?
Back in 1974, when the Health & Safety at Work Act came into being, a shocking 166 building workers lost their lives in accidents at work, around 25% of “at work” deaths.
The figure of 32 deaths among construction workers mentioned above is 32 too many. But the industry has come a long way in terms of setting out protocols and putting training measures in place to ensure that risks—and accidents—are kept to a minimum.
Factors such as automation can and will help reduce the risk and eventuality of accidents. Greater use of factory-built components, where quality and safety can be more tightly controlled than on a building site, along with pre-assembly techniques, will help both health and safety progress and productivity.
But there will always be the human element to a building site. It still takes regular people to climb aboard a large machine to tear down a wall, dig a foundation, then erect and put the finishing touches to a building.
The campaign to create safer working conditions for those individuals is unlikely to ease off any time soon.