HSE: Why construction must bust the dust risk
The construction industry needs to do more to protect the health of its workers’ lungs. The Health & Safety Executive’s Chris Lucas explains why.
It’s no secret that construction is one of Britain’s most dangerous industries – last year 38 construction workers were killed and it is estimated an additional 64,000 were injured. But conversations around “health” haven’t been as commonplace.
Yet the latest figures on work-related ill health now show a loss of 1.9 million working days within the industry, equating to around 8,000 construction workers being absent from work for a full year.
One of the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) biggest concerns is the health of construction workers’ lungs. Many common jobs on a construction site produce a lot of dust, including removing old materials or using power tools like cut-off saws.
What is sometimes less well-known is that this “general dust” can contain hazardous substances like asbestos, silica and even wood – and breathing this in can cause serious long-term lung damage.
Together these different types of dust are linked to chronic, and sometimes even terminal, lung diseases including cancer, silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Even when they are not fatal, each of these conditions can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.
Scale of the problem
HSE estimates that past occupational exposure to known and probable carcinogens accounts for about 8,000 cancer deaths each year – and the construction industry has the largest proportion of these deaths, around 3,500. The majority are linked to asbestos and silica.
“For every fatal construction accident, approximately 100 workers die from diseases, particularly of the lung, caused or made worse by their work.”
As many as 4,000 people a year are also estimated to die from work-related COPD, and it is reasonable to assume construction workers form a significant proportion of them.
So, for every fatal construction accident, approximately 100 workers die from diseases, particularly of the lung, caused or made worse by their work.
This is why the HSE is currently under-taking a national programme of health inspections, visiting construction sites large and small across the UK.
Our inspectors will be particularly focusing on work that can create a risk to the lungs of construction workers. They will be looking for evidence that those running construction firms, managing construction sites and responsible for working practices know the risk, plan the work and use the right controls – that they are fulfilling their legal duties.
Identifying and managing the risks
Before beginning any construction activity, managers should establish what the dust and other risks are likely to be. This is particularly important regarding the location and condition of any existing asbestos. Think about the work or tasks involved and who might be affected, as it is your legal duty to identify and assess the significance of these. Make sure that your workers also know about the risks and what they need to do in relation to them.
Consider how best you can prevent the risks through design changes or using different methods of work. For example, is it possible to carry out the building work avoiding the risk of asbestos exposure altogether? The law requires you to look at these options first as it is more effective than trying to control these risks once the work is underway.
It is often more cost-effective too. If that’s not possible, decide on the work methods and equipment that are necessary to provide effective control together with the arrangements needed to implement them.
When work is underway, people need access to the right controls and appropriate training to use them effectively. The greater the risk, the better these controls will need to be. For example, the right water damping or extraction will prevent silica dust getting into the air, but a mask may also be needed as well.
Following these key steps will protect the health of Britain’s builders and will show our inspectors that construction firms, site managers, and anyone else responsible for construction work, are complying with the law and looking after their workers.
If you do not, you will leave your business open to enforcement action. If you have broken the law, you will also have to pay for the time it takes us to help you put things right – a “fee for intervention” (FFI). Is your site ready for a health inspection?
Chris Lucas is construction health policy lead at the Health & Safety Executive