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Working in the construction industry comes with more challenges than some professions. One particular challenge is safety. Since around 6% of the UK population works in construction, there are a lot of people that need to be protected. According to recent statistics, 78,000 construction workers suffered from work-related ill health over a period of three years. What’s more, in the year 2021-2022, there were 30 fatal injuries in the sector with 51% of these due to falls from height. Other causes of death include entrapment, being struck by a falling object, being struck by a moving vehicle and contact with electricity or electrical discharge.
Of non-fatal injuries, 26% were slips, trips or falls. Other causes of injuries were lifting and carrying, falls from height and being struck by an object. However, around 3.7% of construction site workers suffer from work-related ill health, which is not statistically different from the 4% of all workers.
In this article, we’ll tell you all about construction site safety and the rules that now exist to lower risks.
What is a construction site?
There are generally three types of construction work. When people talk about construction sites, they generally mean the construction of buildings, including new buildings, repair to existing buildings, alterations and additions. Other elements included in this sector are civil engineering, including railway and road construction as well as utility projects. There are also specialised activities like demolition, plumbing, electrics, joinery, painting, plastering and glazing.
A construction site, therefore, can be considered to be any place where these activities are taking place. It could be a large-scale site such as the building of a new shopping centre or airport, or a smaller project like a house extension. Whatever size the project, similar dangers will be present, and the same rules need to be followed.
Who is responsible for construction site safety?
According to the Building Safety Act, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the overall Building Safety Regulator.
In construction projects, it is the Principal Contractor who plans, manages, monitors and coordinates health and safety during the construction phase. The Principal Contractor must ensure that standards are understood by all and are followed. This is in accordance with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015). A Principal Contractor is a requirement for any project that includes more than one contractor.
For smaller builders, like those who carry out domestic projects and small commercial projects, the safety comes down to them. These workers are those most affected by ill health and injuries on construction sites and make up the bulk of fatal accidents.
The role of the safety inspector
Safety inspectors work to ensure employers are managing risk sensibly. They inspect workplaces as well as investigate incidents. Safety inspectors are responsible for identifying potential hazards and putting plans in place to eliminate them as much as possible. Safety inspectors must keep records of all site inspections, risk assessments, compliance breaches and investigations.
The role of the safety officer
In some respects, the safety officer and safety inspector carry out similar roles. However, safety officers remain on site for the work, while inspectors look at the site to see if procedures are being followed.
The safety officer is the one responsible for the development and implementation of policies and procedures. They may even train employees on these and conduct compliance audits. They may also play a part in investigating accidents and incidents and make recommendations following these. This is different from the role of a safety inspector in that the inspector can issue fines and citations for non-compliance.
The role of the employer in site safety
Employers have an important role in construction site safety. They have a duty to provide a safe working environment for all workers as well as the public. This means workers should be trained properly to carry out their duties. The employer should also provide appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and ensure that workers are wearing it. Another important task for employers is to consult workers on health and safety.
The role of the employee in construction site safety
Workers also have responsibilities when it comes to managing health and safety risks. They must only conduct work if they have the appropriate knowledge, skills, training and experience to do so. They also need to ensure that they’re aware of risks to their health and safety and follow explicit site procedures and rules. If there are any risks noticed while they’re working, they also have a responsibility to report these to the appropriate person.
Why is safety important on a construction site?
Construction sites are dangerous places, and this industry lends itself to hazardous situations. Being aware of safety and protecting people is critical, as injuries are expensive and also impact on morale. Unlike in many other sectors, when things go wrong on construction sites, it can mean death. Harm can be reduced significantly by ensuring appropriate training, plans and protocols are in place.
What are the risks on a construction site?
- Falls from a height: This is the biggest cause of fatalities. Since this type of work is carried out every day, it is a risk that occurs daily. Examples of height work include working on roofs and working on scaffolding. There are regulations (the Working at Height Regulations 2005) which stipulate that it should be avoided where possible. When it isn’t possible, it must be organised, and risk assessed.
- Falls, slips and trips: This is another common cause of injury but one that can be reduced with appropriate practices. Many slips and trips are caused by slippery surfaces, debris and clutter. These can be easily avoided.
- Hearing problems: Another risk is overexposure to noise. This is a major risk and there are over 21,000 UK construction workers with hearing problems caused by their job.
- Electrical hazards: Workers could be exposed to electrocution, burns and shocks. This might be due to exposure to wiring, power lines or faulty equipment.
- Fire: This is a risk on any construction site. Fire can occur as a result of flammable materials, welding or faulty wiring, for instance.
- Chemical exposure: This is a risk on lots of sites and can be hazardous through ingestion, skin contact or inhalation. Construction work often involves solvents, paints, cleaning agents and adhesives, which can be a health risk.
- Heavy equipment: This includes machinery like excavators, bulldozers and cranes. These pose a risk when they’re not used correctly.
- Lifting, carrying and handling: This is a common cause of injury, and it requires appropriate manual handling training to limit risks.
How to minimise risks on a construction site?
For both worker safety and public safety, risk management is crucial. There are many aspects of minimising risks; here are some of them:
- Risk Assessment: All construction sites should have risk assessments that identify and evaluate all potential hazards. This will include looking at the site conditions and environment as well as the equipment, materials and machinery involved in the project.
- Training: All workers and visitors should be briefed and trained appropriately. This includes subcontractors. It should never be presumed that training is not needed. The training should cover using equipment, recognising hazards, emergency procedures and the use of PPE.
- PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should be issued and used. This includes hard hats, safety glasses, steel toe-capped boots, Hi-Viz clothing, gloves and respiratory protection, if needed.
- Site signage: Hazards should be clearly marked with appropriate signage and barriers. The site should be organised in such a way as to minimise interactions between people and heavy machinery.
- Site inspections: These should be conducted regularly to identify hazards and address them. This means inspections of scaffolding, electrical systems, machinery and other site components.
- Fall prevention: We’ve mentioned this danger multiple times and, as such, it’s important to consider this risk. Guardrails, security nets and harnesses should be provided when workers are at height. They should be appropriately trained in fall prevention too.
- Electrical safety: There should be appropriate procedures in place for electrical work. Equipment should be inspected and insulated.
- Fire safety: There should be a clear fire safety procedure in place as well as emergency exits and evacuation procedures. Fire drills should be conducted so that workers know the procedures. There should also be fire extinguishers and training on their use.
- Handling of materials: There should be training provided on how to lift, move and store materials to prevent injuries.
- Record-keeping: There should be thorough records of all training, inspections, accidents and incidents. Near misses should also be recorded. These documents should be used to identify areas for improvement.
How to improve construction site safety
Improving site safety necessitates a comprehensive approach involving workers and management working together. Firstly, there should be strong leadership capable of establishing a safety-first culture. With safety at the forefront of everything, employers will garner more respect from their workers. Workers themselves should be involved in discussions and decisions as they are the ones at the centre of any safety hazards.
All stakeholders should keep lines of communication open. Workers should feel encouraged to report any concerns over safety and hazards, including near misses, without fear of repercussions.
The whole workforce should work collaboratively with appropriate bodies to ensure that safety is assured. This includes engaging with third-party experts periodically to carry out safety audits.
Above all, construction site safety is a continuous effort that requires collaboration and consistency. Training should be given regularly, and any safety plans and procedures should be reviewed. This will ensure that all workers, as well as visitors and the general public, will be as safe as possible.
What are the legal requirements for construction site safety?
In the United Kingdom, construction site safety is governed by a number of different legal requirements. This includes the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which is the primary legislation. This Act requires employers to provide a safe working environment. Other regulations include the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, also referred to as the CDM Regulations. This legislation puts specific responsibilities on designers and contractors to ensure that health and safety remains a priority during construction projects.
Other legislation to be aware of includes:
- Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
- Work at Height Regulations 2005
- Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER)
- Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992
- Construction (Head Protection) Regulations 1989
- Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH)
- Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR)
- Construction Site Safety Signs and Signals Regulations 1996
- Construction (Working Places) Regulations 1966
Specific legal requirements
The Construction Site Safety Signs and Signals Regulations 1996 require specific signage on construction sites. This includes hazard signs like ‘high voltage’, ‘falling objects’, ‘Danger’, ‘no entry’, ‘no smoking’, ‘wear hard hat’ and ‘use ear protection’. There also needs to be signs to show emergency exits, escape routes and assembly points. Signs indicating the location of fire alarms and extinguishers are also required.
Sign types and their placements will be determined following a risk assessment that is specific to the site.
Construction sites need to be secure to prevent unauthorised access. This will help protect the public from any potential hazards. The type of barriers required will depend on the risks and the characteristics of the particular site. This might include:
- Pedestrian barriers
The requirements for barriers are listed in the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 and the HSE guidance.
As per the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers (or anyone in control of a construction site) must carry out a risk assessment. This should identify hazards, assess risks and implement controls. The risk assessment should be reviewed and updated regularly.
All risk assessments should be recorded and shared with all involved.
Final thoughts on construction site safety
It’s important to recognise that construction site safety is everyone’s responsibility. From planners to designers, workers and inspectors. When everyone works together with health and safety at the forefront, there are fewer risks to health.