The 10 most common health and safety risks in the construction industry

The construction industry is one of the largest sectors in the UK and many other countries. It is notoriously dangerous because of the combination of health and safety risks involving vehicles, equipment and manual tasks which few other industries share. It currently rates in second place behind the agricultural, fishing and forestry industry for the most work-related deaths. The fatal injury figures for the industry across the globe are sobering.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that during 2018, 1001 workers died of work-related injuries in the US. Across Europe, EU-OSHA reported 1,000 fatalities. While the number of occupational deaths dropped slightly in the UK compared to previous years, the construction industry still accounts for 20% of all fatal injuries. 

So, what are the 10 most common health and safety risks associated with the sector and what are the necessary steps to alleviate those? 

According to various industry papers and expert blogs, the top 10 health and safety hazards in construction are as follows: 


SAFETY RISK #1 - WORKING FROM HEIGHT:

Building construction and demolition often require staffs to work from height. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics show that falls from height are the most significant cause of fatal injuries in the workplace. In the past year alone, 40 UK workers have died across all sectors. 

Prime sources of risk:

- Unsecured scaffolding or ladders

- Lack of safety nets or guardrails 

- Unprotected edges

- Loose equipment stored on roofs or raised pathways 

Prevention:

If work from height cannot be avoided, the HSE guidelines recommend that a risk assessment be carried out and preventive measures put in place. All work from height must be planned, controlled, supervised and performed within the given procedures. Furthermore, the workforce must be fully informed of the procedures and trained in the use of equipment.  Preventive measures to keep the risks to a minimum involves the introduction of safety nets, guard rails and keeping equipment secured amongst others.

SAFETY RISK #2 - FALLS, TRIPS & SLIPS

While falls, trips and slips happen in many industries, it is a common hazard in construction due to the nature of the environment and the equipment used. In 2018-2019, slips, trips and falls accounted for 29% of non-fatal injuries in the UK and 33.5% in the US. 

Prime sources of risk:

- Wet and slippery surfaces

- Materials or equipment left unchecked

- Uneven surfaces and ground

- Loose cables

Prevention:

Precise work area management should be put in place to ensure that equipment and tools are kept in a secure area after use. Pathways should be kept free of debris and hazards at all time. Most of all, the crew should wear proper PPE and attend regular safety meeting to keep up to date on the latest procedures.

SAFETY RISK #3 - MOVING OBJECTS

Construction sites are places of constant movement of vehicles, machinery and equipment. As the building site develops the risks associated with it increased accordingly.

Prime sources of risk:

- Poor working light

- Heavy-duty vehicles

- Overhead lifting equipment

- Little space to manoeuvre

- Working close to moving objects

Prevention:

Work area management must be clearly defined to ensure that equipment is used as instructed and meets the relevant safety guidelines. The workforce should wear protective clothing such as high vis jackets to be seen by moving vehicles, as well as steel-toe shoes and helmets to protect them against moving/falling objects. Finally, they should be trained to keep vigilant and aware of their surroundings and to avoid hazards.

SAFETY RISK #4 - NOISE

Noise levels on a construction site can prove a significant safety risk. Repetitive and excessive noise level of 85 d(B)a and above can cause significant hearing impairment, which can lead to deafness. It is estimated that 35% of construction workers in the EU have substantial hearing loss. 

Prime sources of risk:

- Power tools

- Groundwork equipment

- Heavy-duty vehicles

Prevention:

Employers should implement a comprehensive noise risk assessment and provide their workers with the appropriate PPE in the form of soundproof headphones to reduce the intensity of sound waves. Crews must wear the PPE when working in a high noise level environment. 

SAFETY RISK #5 - VIBRATION:

Repetitive vibration caused by power tools can severely damage workers nerves and blood vessels. Hand and Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) is a common injury in the construction industry. EU-OSHA estimates that 63% of workers in the EU suffer from it. If untreated, it can affect dexterity and grasps.

Sources of risk:

- Handheld power tools

- Ground working equipment

- Vibrating power tools

Prevention:

A risk assessment should determine if an alternative to handheld tools such as automated or mechanical equipment is suitable. If power-tools are required, they must be well maintained and used for a short period only. Workers should be trained on how to use the equipment and must also wear the right PPE; in this instance, gloves. 

SAFETY RISK #6 - MANUAL HANDLING

Regularly lifting, carrying and handling material loads and equipment, incorrectly can lead to severe injuries, including Musculoskeletal Disorder (MSDS). MSDS is common amongst construction workers and often affect back or limb joints as well as muscles and tissues. The injury can cause mild to intense pain with a risk of permanent disability.

Prime sources of risk:

- The repetitive heavy lifting of equipment or loads

- Poor lifting posture

Prevention:

The first step in reducing manual handling risk is to train staff to carry out their work safely. It means avoiding hazardous manual handling and using machines or equipment to move or lift loads. For tasks that cannot be handled by machinery, employers should assess the load weight and nature, the posture required to carry out the tasks, the health of workers as well as the working environment. A safe procedure can then be put in place for the benefit of the workforce and the construction company.

SAFETY RISK #7 - COLLAPSES

Collapses are a familiar occurrence at construction and demolition sites due to the nature of the work. The risk of workers being injured or killed are serious; in the first quarter of 2019-2020 out of 111 death, 15 were due to collapses.

Prime sources of risk:

- Trench collapses

- Falling into excavation

- Working area becoming unstable after adding loads

- Weakened structure due to excavation

- Falling material and equipment when trenches collapse

Prevention:

Excavation sites should be regularly inspected before and during shifts to ensure they are fully secured. Site managers should hold frequent safety meetings to keep workers informed of procedures. Crews should be issued with proper PPE, and equipment should be maintained. The presence of first aid on-site also helps speed the response in case of an accident.

SAFETY RISK #8 - ASBESTOS

While over 60 countries have banned asbestos, it remains a source of fatalities. In the UK alone, they are an estimated 500,000 buildings which contain hidden asbestos. Asbestos can cause life-threatening respiratory diseases, such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Asbestos dust is particularly dangerous as it not only affects workers but also anyone that comes into contact with the particles at home or on the way home.

Prime sources of risk:

- Ceiling tiles, thermal paper, wall plaster in older buildings

- Certain types of insulation 

- Old switch gears and circuit boards

Prevention:

Any building or area suspected of containing asbestos should be assessed and dealt with using professional help. Workers should wear proper PPE and be informed of procedures to follow if they find materials that may contain asbestos. Asbestos material should be disposed of safely. Most of all employers should ensure that workers wash before breaks and going home.

SAFETY RISK #9 - ELECTRICITY

Electricity has long been recognised as a severe health hazard in the workplace. In 2018 in the US, 86 people died of electrocution.  The injuries can be caused by direct contact with the power source or indirectly through contact with live equipment or wiring. 

Prime sources of risk:

- Overhead powerlines

- Damaged tools or equipment

- Inadequate wiring or overloaded power boards

- Improper or damaged insulation

Prevention:

Site managers should conduct site surveys to ensure that nothing is stored under overhead power cables, and that restriction signs and barriers are in place. Equipment must be regularly monitored for cable/wire wear and tear. Staff should wear proper PPE and turn off power sources before repairing any equipment.

SAFETY RISK #10 - AIRBORNE DUST

Unsurprisingly construction sites produce huge volumes of invisible and fine material dust which can be toxic. Exposure to dust from hazardous material can result in serious and lasting health implications for construction workers, including life-threatening illnesses such as asthma, lung cancer and silicosis and pulmonary diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis. In China alone, 23 million people are exposed to silica dust. In the European Union, that figure stands at 5 million.

Prime sources of risk:

- Cutting concretes and aggregates

- Laying ballasts

- Brushing floor 

- Woodworks

Prevention:

Material and processes used should be reviewed to identify tasks requiring greater control. Dust exposure should be controlled with the use of exhaust systems. Workers should wear adequate PPE and properly clean down before removing PPE, taking breaks or going home. Where high levels of dust known to represent a threat to the health of staff exist, dedusting equipment should be considered.

Businesses need to comply with HSE guidelines on dust and have control plans and procedures in place to protect staff.

While the constructions sector remains a dangerous industry, it is also worth noting that it is the most improved, with fatal injuries reducing year on year. This is due to better safety training, equipment and awareness. 

Sources : 

www.hse.gov.uk

www.ec.europe.eu

www.osha.europe.eu

www.britsafe.org

www.elcosh.org

www.asbestos.com

The 10 most common health and safety risks in the construction industry