Acting together: Tackling risk in construction

Lesley Balkham, HM Inspector of Health and Safety in Construction Policy and Management Unit, part of the Health and Safety Executive, explains how the organisation is working with industry to tackle risk in the construction sector

Construction work ranges from large, high-profile projects undertaken by major principal contractors like Crossrail or Thames Tideway, to small refurbishment projects in shops and homes or domestic roof repairs by self-employed builders. More than two million people work in the construction industry - approximately seven per cent of Britain’s workforce. The industry has a total turnover of over £296 billion and is dominated by smaller firms, with more than 84 per cent having no employees.

Although there have been significant reductions in the number and rate of fatal incidents and work-related ill-health and injury over the past decade, construction remains a hazardous and high-risk industry, accounting for almost 30 per cent of all fatal injuries to workers.

In the five years up until March 2017, nearly 200 construction workers died and many thousands more received life-changing injuries. Each year around 80,000 construction workers suffer from an illness they believe was caused or made worse by their work, including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), skin or respiratory conditions and depression, stress or anxiety.

Most fatal incidents involve small businesses, and nearly half of all reported injuries occur during refurbishment activities, where there can be a lack of awareness of even basic health and safety standards. The work is also peripatetic in nature, employment is often short term and there are high levels of self-employment, sometimes as part of the informal economy. At this end of the industry, some practices, attitudes and equipment are as bad as those that would have been seen 20 or more years ago.

Given the higher risk environment and often hazardous nature of the work carried out, what is being done to lower the rate of fatalities, injuries and work-related ill-health in the construction industry?

The regulatory framework
For the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as the regulator, construction continues to be a priority sector. In April 2015, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) came into force. The regulations cover the full process of managing health, safety and welfare during the delivery of a construction project from concept, through design and build to handover and future use of a structure.

The regulations emphasise the importance and influence that each dutyholder – client, designer and contractor - has on the way that construction risks are identified, reduced, controlled and managed, throughout the project, regardless of the scale or scope of the work. Clients are expected to influence the way a project is procured and delivered. The function of planning, managing, and co-ordinating the design stage of the project is brought directly into the project team and under the control of a designer. The construction phase of the project is planned, managed, monitored and controlled by contractors.

Sustaining a downward trend
HSE is tackling the rate of injury and fatalities in the construction sector through the carrying out of intelligence-led inspections of construction sites where information indicates serious health and safety risks are not being controlled.

A proportionate approach is taken toward compliance and the embedding of the principles of CDM, directing inspection and enforcement activity at those failing to manage and control risk, particularly health risks and refurbishment activity. Clients and designers are then held to account where they have not done all they can to ensure that the construction project is being carried out without risk to health or safety.

Everyone should play their part
However, it isn’t just the regulator which is tackling the risks in construction; HSE is ensuring that the industry itself has a voice too. HSE’s Construction Industry Advisory Committee (CONIAC) is made up of key industry stakeholders and advises on industry issues relating to health and safety, acting as the public face and voice of the construction industry, ensuring that the industry is actively involved in identifying the risks and their solutions.

CONIAC is organised around five working groups which represent the themes of HSE’s Helping Great Britain Work Well strategy; Tackling ill-health; Managing risk well; Supporting small employers; Keeping pace with change; and Sharing our success. The chairs of each group form a steering group which is focused on helping the industry, particularly small businesses, achieve improved risk management and control.

In December 2017, HSE extended this industry involvement even further with the launch of the wider stakeholder network, the Construction Industry Advisory Network (CONIAN) which was set up to promote engagement with workers through their representative organisations, and to provide organisations with direction on managing construction risks well.

HSE recognises that it is only through acting together; regulators, workers and industry, that Great Britain can further improve the health and safety record in the construction industry and move toward a safer, better skilled, more productive and smarter future.

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