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The building and construction industry is one of the most dangerous in the country. According to government statistics, every year 81,000 construction workers suffer from a work related injury. These can be long-term injuries such as back strain or breathing difficulties like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but a high percentage of these occur from workplace accidents and can be caused by a wide variety of events and construction hazards.
Construction site dangers include falls and injuries caused by lifting, and these account for 61,000 accidents a year.
Shockingly there were 40 fatal injuries to workers between 2019 and 2020. This is the average death rate of the construction industry – there were 37 fatalities the previous year and a similar rate of fatalities the year before. These were all deaths that could have been avoided.
The 61,000 non-fatal injuries also had life-changing effects on many construction workers.
So why is the construction industry so dangerous and what can we do about it?
We take a look at identifying hazards on the construction site, the safety legislation surrounding the construction industry, and examine ways to minimise the risk and make the workplace a safer environment for all.
What are some of the main hazards on a construction site?
The construction site is a dangerous place crammed full of hazards. There are large tools and machinery used on a regular basis. There are hazards that could cause a falling accident, and in many cases construction workers have to work at height.
The type of hazard will depend upon the type of construction being undertaken but largely comes down to the following risks:
- Working at height.
- Moving objects.
- Slips, trips and falls.
- Hand-arm vibration syndrome.
- Material and manual handling.
- Collapsing trenches.
- Airborne fibres and materials.
So, let’s take a look at these construction site dangers in greater depth and find out how to improve safety in this potentially dangerous workplace.
Working at height
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) working at height is one of the biggest causes of accidents and fatalities in the construction industry. The HSE defines this as working in any place where someone could fall if there were not safety precautions in place.
Before working at height is undertaken, you need to ensure that all staff are fully trained and competent. The 2005 Work at Height Regulations outline these, and if there is an accident at work, the employer will be seen to be at fault if safety information is not followed.
You should carry out a risk assessment and make sure you use the right equipment for working at height, for example guard rails or a scissor lift to ensure collective safety or ensuring that safety harnesses are worn correctly to protect individual safety.
The work should be planned in advanced, and you should avoid working at height if at all possible.
- Do as much of the work as possible from ground level.
- Make sure that employees can get to the work site safely and that they have a safety route down.
- Ensure that protective equipment such as hand rails are fully functioning and are in good order.
- Take all the necessary precautions for the environment such as working on fragile roofs or avoiding falling objects.
- Only use employees who are competent and comfortable at working at height.
- Overload ladders.
- Over reach on ladders.
- Rest ladders against weak supports such as plastic guttering.
- Work on ladders to perform heavy tasks.
The construction site can be fast moving with heavy machinery and vehicles moving around the terrain such as diggers, lifting equipment and supply vehicles. Being hit or run over by a moving vehicle or object is a common cause of accident.
To reduce risk, it is crucial to take the following steps:
- Ensure that all workers wear high visibility clothing and are vigilant to the risks
- Work should be carried out in the safest environment possible – not close to moving objects or vehicle routes.
Slips, trips and falls
Slips, trips and falls can happen in any working environment but construction site dangers make this workplace especially difficult. Every year several thousand construction workers are injured following a slip or a fall on a building site, often leading to broken bones or dislocated joints.
The employer has a duty to ensure that the construction site is as safe as possible and is kept in a clean and orderly condition. The workforce can make a big contribution to safety by reporting hazards or “near misses” too.
Points to consider include the following:
- Uneven surfaces are a major cause of slips and falls. To improve safety create clearly designated paths and walkways that have good underfoot conditions and lighting if necessary.
- Remove obstacles. If the building site is untidy with deliveries or waste material left where people can fall over it, they probably will. Keeping the construction site tidy will reduce the risk of accidents.
- If surfaces are wet and slippery, treat them with grit or stones so that workers can tread safely.
- Remove trailing cables where possible.
The construction site is often very noisy with the use of machinery and power tools. These can cause severe and permanent damage to hearing such as tinnitus or deafness.
Noise also poses a danger because workers may become distracted or be unable to hear warnings.
Ear defenders should be worn if an employee is operating a noisy piece of machinery. The Control of Noise at Work Regulations of 2005 sets out the rules, which state that prolonged exposure to noise of over 85 decibels is a risk. A jack hammer is around 120 decibels so lengthy exposure will cause hearing damage.
Hand-arm vibration syndrome
HAVS, often called vibration white finger, is caused by long use of power tools such as grinders, sanders and power drills which can permanently destroy the nerve endings and the joints of your hand, wrist and arm.
Vibration white finger is also known as Reynaud’s disease. This is preventable, but once the damage is done it is irreversible. Hand-arm vibration can also lead to Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.
The HSE has outlined rules in a guide to employers called INDG175 and there is a time limit on usage of vibrating tools as well as safety advice and how to spot early symptoms.
To keep the construction site safe, always ensure that power tools are in good condition and that they are not used for prolonged periods. Sometimes a vibrating tool may seem the easiest option, but it is important for construction workers to be aware of the risks and choose other options if it is possible.
Material and manual handling
The nature of a construction site means that there is always a lot of lifting and carrying. And with 19% of construction injuries caused by handling, lifting and carrying, this is a major construction site hazard.
All staff should receive proper training in using lifting equipment and also understand the principles of safe moving and handling.
The construction site often requires physical lifting skills, so it is imperative that all workers understand how to carry this out safely.
In many cases a muscular skeletal injury develops over time and can be caused by the following:
- Awkward movements that occur regularly over a long period of time.
- Lifting heavy items regularly
- Lifting an item that is too heavy.
- Bending down regularly.
- Sitting or standing with bad posture.
- Stretching to reach high areas.
- Working in a cramped environment.
- Working on unstable or uneven flooring.
To find out more about how to minimise injuries caused by incorrect moving and handling you can view the knowledge base.
Collapsing trenches are a common construction site hazard that can be fatal. This happens when a building that is being constructed or demolished collapses with workers trapped inside. It can also happen if a deep hole needs to be dug and then collapses.
To ensure that the site is safe, a competent person must inspect the structure at the start of each working shift and if the excavation is unsafe, work should be halted.
Before work on a trench is started, the excavation should be planned and support measures put in place to avoid the risk of accident. These may be tarpaulins, battens or shuttering that will support the walls of the trench.
It is crucially important to avoid parking plant machinery close to the trench as this can undermine the excavation, and also to call in the services of a structural engineer if the trench uncovers foundations of other buildings or holes where services have been previously buried.
Key to trench safety is that regular inspections should be carried out by a trained person to ensure that it is safe.
Asbestos used to be considered a wonder material, cheap, safe and fireproof. Of course we know different now and asbestos is banned in the UK as a building material, but anything built before 2000 is likely to contain asbestos; it is estimated that at least half a million buildings in daily use still contain asbestos. So if a construction site is based on a renovation or demolition of an older property, it is highly likely that the building will pose a serious health risk.
Asbestos is a natural material and although there are six different types, they all pose a real risk to health. This is because when the microscopic fibres are released into the air, such as when an asbestos roof or pipe is damaged, the asbestos enters the lungs causing a range of symptoms and leading eventually to a slow and painful death.
Asbestos poisoning does not happen overnight. It usually takes around 20 to 30 years to develop, but with on average around 5,000 people dying each year from asbestos exposure, this is still an ongoing serious health problem that affects the construction industry.
To keep safe, workers should understand what asbestos looks like so that they can report and avoid it. In addition they must be informed of its whereabouts on the construction site.
Asbestos removal is a highly skilled trained operation that should only be carried out by experts with the correct safety equipment and breathing apparatus as well as the facilities for its safe disposal.
An electric shock or electrocution can kill, and according to the HSE over a thousand electrical incidents are reported each year.
On the construction site these are often caused by the following scenarios:
- Underground cables: These major power supply cables will cause a fatal injury if they are damaged. To keep safe always ensure that there is a construction plan to follow and that cable detecting equipment is used prior to digging.
- Overhead power lines: If work is carried out close to overhead power lines, it must be planned in advance to avoid this hazard. It won’t just take out the neighbourhood’s electricity supply; it could cause a fatal accident.
- Electrical systems in the building: Renovation and refurbishment can cause old electrical systems to become damaged. To avoid the risk of shocks, always ensure that plans are followed and that the work is monitored to avoid accidents.
In addition, it is crucially important to ensure that all electricians are fully trained to professional standards. There are often incidents that report untrained electricians working on building sites without any proper qualifications and training. This is not only against the law, but it is a serious risk to health and safety.
Airborne fibres and materials
Airborne fibres and materials may be difficult to spot but they can be a killer.
In the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks, for example, over 14,000 deaths from the toxic cloud have been reported with many of these related to asbestos poisoning.
There is a lot of dust on the average construction site and the employer needs to provide adequate protection. This dust may be composed of a blend of materials including asbestos, brick dust and more. Working in this environment unprotected will lead to lung damage and diseases such as silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.
Although asbestos dust is a major concern, other materials will also damage health if they get into the lungs.
Employers need to ensure that all workers are wearing adequate protection where necessary.
Construction can be a dirty and dangerous job. It is important to maintain safety at all times and to remember that just because a workplace accident may have been avoided, the long-term risks of construction work can be very damaging.
Every year people die or become ill because of their work in construction, so although thinking of safety first may seem to some people like “health and safety gone mad”, maintaining the correct legislation is crucial for the long-term and short-term health of your workforce.