Health and safety issues: planning ahead

A little bit of medicine

6 March 2017

The industry needs to plan ahead when dealing with health and safety issues, Dave Mitchell maintains

Clear evidence is now emerging that the construction industry is making progress towards managing health as well as it does safety and giving both areas appropriate attention. And with the Construction (Design and Management) or CDM Regulations 2015 bedding in, there is an opportunity to plan ahead in a more coordinated fashion.

Ill health results in 100 times as many construction deaths than safety problems, so progress is well overdue. Thanks to the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG), it is now more clearly on the agenda of many construction CEOs. The current emphasis is on mitigating dust exposure and understanding the burden of mental health problems on those in our industry.

Reducing dust

Treating health like safety means that we act to eliminate or at least reduce the dust that is generated by our activities, such that there is less opportunity for exposure. As a result, personal protective equipment should be provided for work on site, or health surveillance used to check that people have not been adversely affected.

The Home Builders Federation’s Health and Safety Committee is working to reduce the dust hazard on new-build housing sites. It has also worked proactively with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to evaluate exposure levels, and with equipment manufacturers to help address tool dust suppression and extraction. It continues to raise awareness along supply chains, and with those who work on site to reduce dust exposure.

Mental health issues

Mental health problems present a huge challenge throughout UK industry, not just construction. Studies show that men in particular struggle to talk about their problems, and in our male-dominated industry there has historically been a perception that these represent a weakness – often pushing those in need of support, or just asking to be heard, into deeper despair.

Risks to mental health can affect staff in the entire construction sector, including senior executives and commercial and design staff as well as those on site. To address this, Mates in Mind is a new HCLG initiative with the British Safety Council to provide much-needed simple and pragmatic advice and support.

The industry’s focus on addressing health and safety issues also needs to be seen in the context of the CDM Regulations 2015. While these are now nearly two years old, there continues to be significant dialogue around their appropriate interpretation, in particular with the role of principal designer. With the principal designer now having duties parallel to those of the principal contractor – namely to plan, manage and monitor their respective phase of the construction process – there should be the opportunity for a consistent approach.

The two themes of health and the CDM Regulations are increasingly coming together under the umbrella of designing for health.

In the housebuilding sector, many developers take on the role of both principal designer and principal contractor, with the technical and build teams typically addressing the specific safety responsibilities in the pre-construction and construction phases, as appropriate. It is not uncommon for the technical and build directors to act as focal points and be supported by the company’s health and safety director in discharging the corporate duties in each phase efficiently.

Industry and the HSE are currently looking to take on board the lessons of a series of case studies related to the implementation of the CDM Regulations 2015. Their aim is to help organisations understand what a pragmatic interpretation of the regulations looks like, while addressing some sector-specific differences.

The two themes of health and the CDM Regulations are increasingly coming together under the umbrella of designing for health. Many leading organisations are seeking to encourage and subsequently challenge those in the design process to consider how their design can reduce exposure to health risks for people either constructing or maintaining the works.

While health and the CDM Regulations 2015 are receiving significant attention, however, we should not lose sight of the traditional safety risks. Working at heights and workplace transport continue to require careful planning and preparation to mitigate risks. The core requirements of collective protection and fall prevention for working at height, and the need to keep people and plant effectively separated, can still be frequently seen in the health and safety press to have been poorly executed. With the new Sentencing Council health and safety guidelines now being used in courts, multimillion-pound fines are becoming increasingly common, even for non-fatal injury.

The solution as always is to plan and prepare the work, taking account in advance of how the workforce is likely to perform the task and seek to identify potentially difficult tasks. Worker engagement needs to be used in the planning of works, and not just as an after-the-event discussion.

Dave Mitchell is Technical Director at the Home Builders Federation

Further information

  • Related competencies include Health and safety
  • This feature is taken from the RICS Building control journal (February/March 2017)