The biggest issues in construction safety


One of the best ways of assessing the mood of people in an industry these days is to visit their sector-specific online forums and see what the ‘hot buttons’ are.

One such example can be found right now within the HSE-hosted construction forum. Here a lively thread has opened on the question of which are the top 5 hazards in construction (or maybe that should be the bottom 5 if we are awarding the thumbs-down to these low points).

One contributor has hazarded that the following are his worst 5:

  1. Falls from height
  2. Poor training / lack of training
  3. Incompetent clients
  4. Employers who have archaic attitudes and are morally irresponsible
  5. Pressure groups misinforming Government to focus on finances not safety

His or her comments are based on a view that too many clients are financially-fixated. They have found support from other people, who from their tone and their appearance on such a forum are surely health and safety consultants or in-house managers with H&S responsibilities.

One lady added to her list the tendency for there to be a climate of fear in organisations and unwillingness to speak out: as well as too much buck-passing.

A gentleman notes that ‘elf and safety’ is often seen as a waste of time and money, while the ‘tick box mentality’ means that just filling out a Risk Assessment or Method Statement can be seen as absolving the writers from further action.
The same writer makes the very good and often-overlooked point that people tend to over-rely on PPE to take care of health and safety issues by simply wearing it, thus users are lulled into a false feeling of security.

Then comes an analytical type who asks us to stop and ask what our criteria are for ranking the ‘worst 5’ ills. Examples of potential criteria that he gives are:

Frequency – more frequent actions tend to generate larger numbers of accidents. (So that gas inhalation is only a big issue in enclosed spaces: but that doesn’t mean that it’s not extremely hazardous)

Severity – this is clearly important but as he points out, is a lucky near-miss any less of a safety issue than one which results in a fatality?

Man-hours lost – this is a useful global measure but can be misleading. Some injuries result in disproportionately long absences compared to others that may have stemmed from equally heinous safety lapses.

And the final contributions (thus far) come from two writers who remind us that there are health issues that are more dangerous than the highly-publicised accidents that sometimes happen. Far more people suffer from work-related health problems than from injuries.

Top of the health lists are:

  • Asbestos – a known killer whose effects must be appreciated by everyone: but in practice they are all too often not accounted for.
  • Use of chemicals – people do not read the COSHH assessments or prepare properly for using dangerous substances.
  • Noise – building sites are noisy but how many people don their ear defenders?
  • Dust – it is surprising that HSE do not make this a higher priority in their site visits. It is easy to overlook slack procedures for handling dusts on site yet these can lead to huge problems in later life and can shorten lives. One correspondent refers to “an underlying and largely unnoticed tide of dangerously high lead levels in the blood of both exposed workers and their immediate families.”
  • Slips and falls – tripping up or slipping may often be trivial but it is in aggregate the greatest cause of days off work.

Overall, it is quite a wake-up call to read the unadulterated opinion of those on the front line of applying health and safety policy. It is more real and believable than many an HSE, BSC or safety consultants press release.  In future articles we will return to the front and see what else is being lobbed over the parapet by the foot soldiers. It is to be hoped that those in power are taking notice.