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Bricklaying is a highly skilled trade that has been used in construction for thousands of years. Bricklayers construct, build and repair buildings and other structures, such as foundations, walls, or even decorative masonry work. A bricklayer will be required to work mainly outside on construction sites, in various environments and in changing weather conditions. As there are countless safety hazards that need to be overcome on a daily basis, bricklayers will need to maintain their own safety, as well as the safety of the area and the people around them.
What is the role of a bricklayer?
Bricklayers are skilled craftspeople responsible for constructing brickwork by laying bricks using the correct mortar mixture. The role of a bricklayer involves multiple tasks. Bricklayers are usually part of the core construction team and are critical to the structure of a building due to the fact that they are responsible for the foundations. They lay bricks, pre-cut stone and concrete blocks in mortar to build, construct, extend and repair domestic and commercial buildings, and other structures.
Depending on where they work, the role may involve:
- Analysing and interpreting building plans
- Working accurately from detailed plans and specifications
- Interpreting work orders and determining the materials required
- Calculating angles and determining the vertical and horizontal alignment of courses
- Mixing mortar by hand or with a mechanical mixer
- Applying or removing mortar with a trowel
- Laying bricks, marble, structural tiles, terracotta blocks or even glass blocks
- Shaping and trimming bricks using hammers, chisels and power tools
- Using hand tools, power tools and brick-cutting machines
- Constructing walls, arches and ornamental brickwork
- Checking that rows of bricks are straight using a spirit level, laser level or plumb line
- Measuring out build areas and setting out the first rows of bricks and damp course
- Strengthening and sealing foundations with the appropriate material, usually damp-resistant materials
- Repairing and maintaining building blocks
- Working outdoors on construction sites, in all weathers and at height such as working safely on scaffolds and swing stages at various heights
- Lifting heavy materials
- Working as part of a group of construction workers
- Observing all health and safety requirements and instructions at the site
- Keeping work area and transit routes in a clean and safe condition
The above list is not exhaustive. Whatever the environment they work in, a bricklayer will be responsible for ensuring the safety of their tools and any equipment to protect the safety of themselves and other people.
What are the main health and safety risks bricklayers can encounter?
Bricklaying is not always considered high-risk work; however, the role still comes with a high potential for workplace injury. There are many potential hazards present in a bricklayer’s work environment which could lead to severe injury or even death. Injuries and illnesses affect most construction-related trades and bricklaying is no exception.
Manual handling is a leading form of workplace injury for bricklayers. Manual handling encompasses a wide range of actions including lifting, lowering, pulling, pushing, and carrying awkward and heavy objects.
Both laying bricks and moving bricks around the worksite are likely causes for workers to experience manual handling injuries such as:
- Back injuries
- Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as shoulder strain
- Repetitive strain injury (RSI) such as wrist strain
- Soft-tissue injuries to the wrists, arms, shoulders, legs or neck
- Long-term pain in the arms, legs or joints
Slips, trips and falls are one of the top three causes of non-fatal work injuries involving days away from work. Each year they cause thousands of preventable injuries, and they can cause various injuries such as bruises, sprains, scrapes, broken bones and head traumas. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) several thousand construction workers are injured each year following a trip or slip whilst at work on a building site. Around 1,000 of these injuries involve someone fracturing bones or dislocating joints.
Key aspects of construction slips and trips include:
- Uneven surfaces
- Trailing cables
- Wet or slippery surfaces
- Changes in level
Slips and trips affect the whole workplace, so everyone should work to eliminate them by cleaning up spills or debris, even if they did not cause them. Dispose of all debris safely in a skip, bin or designated areas for waste collection, as the debris may contain nails or other sharp objects. Keep work area floors clean, orderly, and dry and keep surfaces free of hazards such as sharp objects, loose boards, corrosions, leaks, spills, snow and ice. Signpost any slippery areas and make sure footwear with a good grip is worn. We will look at PPE later in this guide.
Bricklayers often have to perform constructs and/or repairs at heights. Falling from height can cause serious or even fatal injury. Employees should exercise every precaution when working at height. For bricklayers working on ladders, scaffolding or any other type of access equipment, falls from heights are a risk that needs to be taken into consideration. Using framed scaffolds offer several advantages over using ladders by providing a wider, more stable work platform. Working from scaffolding with a wide work platform is much easier and safer than working from a ladder.
Working at height can also pose risks for others, as a worker falling from a height may injure anyone below when they fall. Avoid working directly underneath someone else where possible, and ensure that any tools or materials kept at a height are well secured so they can’t fall or cause harm.
When working at height, always change tools in secure areas where there is no risk of letting the tools fall, and don’t use tools without attaching them to a work belt when working at height. Tools being used at height should regularly be checked for damage and that there is no damage to lanyards, carabiners, attachment rings or belts.
The use of tools and plant for bricklayers also presents the risk for workplace injury. Brick saws and cement mixers can be dangerous if proper safety precautions are not taken.
These hazards can include:
- Instability of machines
- Flying blade fragments
- Cuts, crush injuries, eye injuries
- Over-exertion / strain injury
- Amputations / lacerations
- Wet from water spray off saw
- Electrical burns or electrocution
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) place duties on people and companies who own, operate or have control over work equipment. PUWER also places responsibilities on businesses and organisations whose employees use work equipment, whether owned by them or not.
PUWER requires that equipment provided for use at work is:
- Suitable for the intended use.
- Safe for use, maintained in a safe condition and inspected to ensure it is correctly installed and does not subsequently deteriorate.
- Accompanied by suitable health and safety measures, such as protective devices and controls. These will normally include emergency stop devices, adequate means of isolation from sources of energy, clearly visible markings and warning devices.
- Used in accordance with specific requirements, for mobile work equipment and power presses.
Dust exposure including brick dust or silica is a major hazard to bricklayers and other workers on construction sites. Silica is a natural substance found in varying amounts in most rocks, sand and clay. For example, sandstone contains more than 70% silica, whereas granite might contain 15-30%. Silica is also a major constituent of construction materials such as bricks, tiles, concrete and mortar. Bricklayers generate dust from these materials during many common construction tasks.
These include cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing. Some of this dust is fine enough to get deep into the lungs. The fine dust is known as respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and is too fine to see with normal lighting. Silica is the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos and the amounts needed to cause this damage are not large.
Heavy and prolonged exposure to RCS can cause lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases such as:
- Silicosis – this can cause severe breathing problems and increases the risk of lung infections. Silicosis usually follows exposure to RCS over many years, but extremely high exposures can cause acute silicosis more quickly.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – this is a group of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. It results in severe breathlessness, prolonged coughing and chronic disability. It can be very disabling and is a leading cause of death. Around 4,000 deaths are estimated annually due to COPD resulting from workplace exposures in the past. Construction workers are a significant at-risk group within this.
HSE figures show that 800 people lose their lives to cancer every year because they inhale hazardous dust particles. A further 39,000 suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the same particles.
Mortar is the material commonly used with bricks and blocks, to bond them together. Contact with wet cement products such as mortars is a major cause of skin health issues suffered by bricklayers in construction. Such contact with wet concrete, or other cement-based materials such as mortars and renders, can lead to skin diseases such as dermatitis and burns or rashes. Mortar also contains crystalline silica, mostly as quartz, which if breathed in as a very fine crystalline silica dust can lead to the development of silicosis.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) adopts workplace exposure limits (WELs) that apply to the concentration of the hazardous substances in the air, averaged over a specified period of time, referred to as a time weighted average (TWA). WELs are published regularly by the HSE, specifying the current limit values.
Irritant contact dermatitis is the most common cause of occupational contact dermatitis amongst bricklayers. Continual wetting and drying of the skin, as well as handling some particular substances will cause the skin to dry out, flake, split and crack. This will occur more commonly in people with sensitive skin, especially those with a history of eczema.
Common irritants in the construction industry that can affect bricklayers include, but are not limited to:
- Cement / mortar
- Water, including washing hands frequently
- Abrasive hand cleaners
- Silica dust
- Putty and sealants
- Heat and sweating
- Friction, from using machinery
Bricklayers working either outdoors in direct sunlight or in hot, enclosed spaces puts them at risk for heat stroke and related illnesses. Sun exposure can damage the skin and may cause skin cancer; almost half of outdoor workers who die from melanoma are bricklayers according to research by Imperial College London.
Maintaining a safe work environment is important, particularly in the high-risk work environment faced by bricklayers. It is important that every hazard is met with elimination or, at the minimum, a control measure to mitigate any potential risk.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (1999), the minimum a business must do is:
- Identify what could cause injury or illness in your business (hazards)
- Decide how likely it is that someone could be harmed and how seriously (the risk)
- Take action to eliminate the hazard or, if this isn’t possible, control the risk
Risk assessment requires making a judgement on Risk Severity. Risk Severity = probability of risk materialising x impact of risk on, for example, a person or people, a business, a property etc.
Probability may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – a reasonably informed person would think it very unlikely this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- Medium (Level 2) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a significant possibility this risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
- High (Level 3) – a reasonably informed person would think there is a very significant or even likely possibility the risk would materialise in the foreseeable future.
Impact may be understood as:
- Low (Level 1) – any impact that is minimal, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is isolated and short-lived.
- Medium (Level 2) – any impact that is significant, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact is limited to one function or group, but there is a material operational impact and the effects may continue.
- High (Level 3) – any impact that is severe, having regard to the importance of interests affected, impairment of function and duration. Typically, the impact impairs a critical function and/or has a systemic impact and the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.
Bricklayers must ensure an assessment has been made of any hazards, which covers:
- What the potential hazard is – the risk assessment should take into consideration the type of equipment used, the way in which it is used and the environment it is used in
- Who, or what could be harmed by the hazard
- How the level of risk has been established
- The precautions taken to eliminate or control that risk
Managing risk is an ongoing process that is triggered when changes affect a bricklayer’s work activities; changes such as, but not limited to:
- Changing work practices, procedures or the work environment
- Purchasing new or used equipment or using new substances
- Workforce changes
- Planning to improve efficiency or reduce costs
- New information about the workplace risks becomes available
Risk assessments should be recorded and records regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Should an accident occur, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) will request copies of the risk assessments.
There are a number of laws and regulations that apply to the management of health and safety risks to bricklayers. These include, but are not limited to:
The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) apply to all construction work and require that steps are taken to:
- Prevent danger to any person, to ensure that any new or existing structure or any part of such structure which may become unstable or in a temporary state of weakness or instability due to the carrying out of construction work does not collapse; any buttress, temporary support or temporary structure must be of such design and so installed and maintained as to withstand any foreseeable loads which may be imposed on it.
- Ensure no part of a structure shall be so loaded as to render it unsafe to any person.
Under the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR), manual handling which might cause injury is prohibited unless an assessment has been made, and if the operation cannot be avoided, suitable control measures should be in place. In all cases, reasonable alternatives to manual handling should be employed.
Why is PPE important
Personal protective equipment (PPE) protects workers from hazards such as trips, burns, electrocution and falls. While there is some PPE that is universal to many trades, bricklayers have certain PPE which is specific to their job.
- Bump caps – hard yet lightweight head covering to protect from knocks to the head. Head protection is required by law on all construction sites where there is a risk of head injury. It is also important to inspect the safety helmet on a daily basis to ensure that the structure and various components – the outer shell, chin strap and visor – are in good condition to ensure adequate head protection.
- Face masks and respirators – prevent potentially inhaling substances, such as silica or mortar dust. For proper use and to ensure compliance, be sure to fit test the respirator, undergo formal training, always make sure it is clean and never borrow or use another worker’s respirator.
- Safety goggles/glasses – the use of eye protection can stop harmful debris from entering the eyes such as flying cement particles or mortar dust which can cause serious eye injuries or even blindness.
- Hearing protection – construction sites are loud and bricklayers are often exposed to much of this noise. Failure to wear dedicated hearing protection equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs or earmuffs, either reusable or disposable, can lead to severe damage to the eardrum, tinnitus or even irreversible hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Gloves – not all bricklayers wear gloves; however, the most common type for bricklaying and stonemasonry includes flock-lined nitrile gloves. Wearing these helps ensure a stable grip when working. They also protect the hands against harsh chemicals.
- Footwear – it is common for bricklayers’ PPE requirements to include safety-toe footwear that protects against risks of collapsing walls or falling objects. PPE footwear should be slip-resistant and have puncture-resistant soles.
- Protective clothing – bricklayers should wear the correct protective clothing to match the working conditions and the potential risks of each situation. An example is trousers with removable knee pads which are highly recommended to protect joints and improve comfort when performing jobs involving kneeling.
- Highly-visible vests or reflective clothing – particularly important when working outside in low light and poor visibility conditions. Reflective workwear must fit properly and meet ISO EN 20471:2013 for high-visibility warning clothing. Hi-vis clothing should be comfortable, non-restrictive and provide good visibility during the day, at night, and in poor weather conditions.
- Fall protection – while the risk of falling is rare, it is not unheard of, so a bricklayer’s PPE should include fall protection equipment depending on the job site and the structures in place. When carrying out specific jobs where there is a risk of falling from a height, bricklayers might use, for example, a full harness, a retractable type fall arrester, a lanyard with shock absorber, anchor points and/or connectors.
- Sunscreen – bricklayers should use sunscreen with SPF minimum 30 UVA protection or higher, 20 minutes before going outside. It doesn’t matter if they are working in the heat or not, bricklayers still need to wear sunscreen for sun protection; the shade from a hard hat isn’t enough as UV radiation from the sun penetrates clouds and glass.
What training should highway workers take?
When bricklayers are trained to work safely, they should be able to anticipate and avoid injury from job-related hazards. Safety training is essential for all bricklayers appropriate to their role, and training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained.
This training for bricklayers might include, but is not limited to:
- Health and Safety for Employees
- Health and Safety for Managers
- Manual Handling
- Workplace First Aid
- COSHH Awareness
- Working at height
- Slips, Trips and Falls
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
- PUWER Awareness
- Noise Awareness
Bricklayers should at a minimum refresh their safety training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).
Get started on a course suitable for highway workers
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)£20 + VAT View course
Manual Handling£20 + VAT View course
PUWER Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Noise Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Managers£49 + VAT View course
COSHH Awareness£20 + VAT View course
Slips, Trips and Falls£20 + VAT View course
Working at height£20 + VAT View course
Health and Safety for Employees£20 + VAT View course
Workplace First Aid£20 + VAT View course