Taking long-term health risks in construction seriously

Adrian Buttress is the managing director of PermaGroup

Keeping contractors safe while working on site is not just about avoiding imminent risks and injury. Long-term health problems impact all areas of construction; by being aware of the dangers, and implementing the correct safety protocols, the sector can ensure its workers are protected now and for the future.

According to a recent study conducted by the legal services company Slater and Gordon, two-fifths of construction-industry workers believe that accidents are “inevitable” on their sites. Almost half feel that their employers could do more to enhance site safety, and a concerning 41 per cent have been compelled to work in unsafe conditions.

“While it might seem that someone is in good physical condition, it is about protecting their health for the future”

While it is a legal obligation to ensure a safe working environment, it is also an essential part of promoting a positive workforce, building your business reputation and ensuring good collaboration with other contractors.

Failure to prioritise health and safety can lead to serious consequences, including injuries, fatalities, legal liabilities and project delays. But it’s also important to recognise that there are not just short-term dangers – long-term risks are more widely known than ever, and as any experienced contractor will know, it is critical to think ahead.

Hidden dangers

Many of the industry’s dangers are obvious, such as falling from height or injuries from machinery. But other risks are more difficult to spot because they are connected to the everyday physical movements completed by workers.

Back injuries from lifting, strain from repetitive movements, joint impact from kneeling or climbing ladders – these all create pressure on the body over time. While difficult to mitigate, regular breaks and changing tasks can help, as well as having the right protective clothing like knee pads. It’s also worth noting that many contractors spend a lot of time outside. While it’s often a perk to be able to enjoy nice weather, it’s not without its risks, so wearing UV protection is advised.

There are also the more sinister, exposure-related risks that can dramatically impact your health – even in small doses. Particularly when working on older buildings, contractors need to be wary of outdated and banned toxic materials that may still be in place. This includes asbestos and lead, which were commonly used in the past and are perhaps the most well-known toxic chemicals. Other methods still used today can also cause health problems from inhaling or touching, such as tar and asphalt, PVC, polyurethane foam and bitumen.

As well as immediate reactions, these chemicals can cause problems further down the line if the exposure is prolonged. These can range from headaches, dizziness and nausea to brain-function issues such as concentration and memory loss. The long-term impacts can be more severe, including cancer, neurological problems, respiratory problems, skin issues and weakened immune systems.

Upholding standards

When preventing health risks, a strong sense of awareness and education is key. Many contractors will learn through experience over time, but it is important to also remain diligent, comply with regulations and stay on top of training.

Early assessments of every project are essential, from choosing not to work in bad weather conditions to doing site investigations to spot potential hazards. This is particularly important when working on refurbishment projects in older buildings. For example, a telltale sign of a damaged roof is spotting an inward curve on the external waterproofing. This would suggest the roof is not safe to access as it could collapse.

Training is also a vital tool that enables less experienced contractors to understand the dangers onsite. When it comes to using machinery or certain materials, workers should be qualified to do so and feel confident to avoid injury to themselves or others.

This is crucial when working with younger people, such as apprentices. While it might seem that someone is in good physical condition, it is about protecting their health for the future. This includes using face masks around dust and other toxic materials, wearing correct PPE and taking regular breaks.

As the industry faces many challenges with labour shortages and rising costs, there is the potential for health and safety to slip, or for corners to be cut. But all reputable companies should be enforcing best practice and holding contractors to a high standard to ensure sites stay safe for all.

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