Major construction projects can play a critical role in improving workers’ understanding of health risks and championing ‘universally high standards’ across the industry, new research suggests.
A three-year research project, funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), aimed to explore the management of health, safety and wellbeing interventions on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project.
Members of the research team from Loughborough University were integrated into each of the construction teams working on the Tideway project and monitored key health and safety processes, personnel, documentation, events and activities.
In a new paper titled ‘Raising the bar for occupational health management in construction, published in the Institution of Civil Engineers’ journal Civil Engineering, the research team highlights practical measures from the Tideway project to help stakeholders improve the management of health risks in construction.
The Loughborough team suggests major projects have an important role to play in upskilling the workforce, and that construction managers must take responsibility for health risk management, supported by skilled OSH and health professionals.
Interventions included working with occupational hygienists to improve understanding about health risks and how to manage them and coordinating training sessions for project managers, engineers, supervisors and others who contribute to risk assessments focusing on practical control measures.
Alistair Gibb, Professor of Construction Engineering Management at Loughborough University, said: “The construction industry faces many unique challenges when it comes to managing health risks and protecting workers. Across the industry there is poor understanding about the standards of health assessment which are legally required and low motivation among many employers to pay for health checks for workers who may soon move to other employers.
“Major projects such as Tideway are critical to developing universally high health management standards and are well-placed to champion good OH services and to use their expertise and influence to embed change within their own supply chains. To achieve long-lasting improvements, these standards must be adopted throughout the sector, particularly within the SMEs which employ the majority of the workforce.”
The study suggests a consistent approach to occupational health management and health surveillance is needed across the construction industry with a commitment to improved portability of OH data.
The researchers also argue that health needs to be given higher visibility and clarity at prequalification and in tender documents.
Mary Ogungbeje, Research Manager at IOSH, said: “This research goes a long way towards addressing what is a very prevalent and complex issue in the construction sector.
“For health to truly be treated like safety in construction there needs to be a shift in the perception and practices of employers and workers, and acceptance in industry that high standards should not be an exceptional practice but the necessary norm.
“The study highlights practical measures to help all stakeholders address barriers and improve the management of health risks in construction.”
Steve Hails, Director of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at Tideway, said: “Our commitment to transformational health, safety and wellbeing standards at Tideway is intended to set a new benchmark for the industry. Achieving parity between health and safety is a strategic objective for our programme and understanding the specific challenges emerging in the course of construction is imperative to our future direction.
“The support from IOSH and Loughborough University has been invaluable in identifying our progress. This unique approach to conducting a longitudinal study with skilled researchers embedded into our construction teams, has allowed us to compile legacy information in real time rather than, as has historically been the case, at the end of the project. This gives Tideway objective feedback during our works and informs our future direction.
“There are additional wider industry benefits for future projects to learn from our experiences through this approach and realising the benefits of industry working collaboratively with academia during the planning and construction phases of work.”
An additional recommendation from the research includes further training for frontline workers, particularly to compensate for low visibility of health hazards including noise and respirable dust, and greater awareness of health conditions with long latency periods, including those caused by silica dust and asbestos exposure.
IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign aims to explain the causes of occupational cancer and help businesses take action. Information about the dangers of silica dust, asbestos and other carcinogens and how to prevent exposure is available on the website: https://www.notimetolose.org.uk/
The paper, titled ‘Raising the bar for occupational health management in construction’ is published in the Institution of Civil Engineers journal Civil Engineering. The research is funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). The paper is available here.
In a second paper, published in the journal Safety Science, the research team explore in more detail the challenges to achieving lasting improvements to worker health in construction, this is available here.