The HSE wants to consolidate the message that exposure to hazardous substances and dusts containing silica is as much of a health risk as on-site safety

Tracy Smyth and Jim Byard

The HSE wants to consolidate the message that exposure to hazardous substances and dusts containing silica is as much of a health risk as on-site safetyAll UK employers have made huge strides to improve safety in the last 40 years. According to latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures (July 2014), the number of people who lose their lives at work has dropped sharply by 85% over the past 40 years, from more than 650 in 1974 to a record low of 133 today. In 2012/13, 39 construction workers were killed on construction sites with six deaths in the first quarter of the period March 2014 - April 2015. Therefore, there is no room for complacency.

On 23 June 2014 the HSE undertook a two-week drive, making unannounced visits to 560 construction sites across the country, focusing on ill health. Of the sites visited, 85 were served with enforcement notices. A total of 13 prohibition notices and 107 improvement notices were also served and 239 health-related notices of contravention were served at 201 of the sites. One in six sites visited resulted in enforcement action.

The HSE’s recently departed chief inspector of construction, Heather Bryant, said: “We recognise the construction sector’s progress in reducing the number of people killed and injured by its activities. But it is clear from these figures that there is an unacceptable toll of ill-health and fatal disease in the industry.”

During their visits, inspectors focused on significant health risk issues, including manual handling; respiratory risks from dusts containing silica materials; exposure to other hazardous substances such as cement and lead paint; and noise and vibration. They produce claims as a result of injuries and ill-health and impose economic costs to the construction industry. The HSE says more than 500 deaths a year are due to the legacy effects of silica exposure alone, on top of the on-site death toll.

The HSE’s approach is to encourage the industry to treat health risks the same way as safety

The present workplace exposure limit for respirable silica dust is set at 0.1 mg per cubic metre though academics based at Stirling University Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group have recently called for a much tighter limit, citing exposure to silica as the cause of the second highest number of occupational cancers after asbestos.

The HSE’s response is that it is not practicable to consistently and reliably measure real workplace exposures to significantly lower levels due to the lack of precision in technical samplers. Our own experience is that workplace claims brought through silica exposure has dropped significantly, largely due to better protection, increased awareness of health and safety standards, and fewer people employed and working in close proximity to silica.

The HSE’s approach to prevention and control of health risks is to encourage the industry to treat health issues in the same way they do safety. There must be continual assessment and management of risk not only by those who manage the industry and employ people but also by those engaged in the industry.

Construction work invariably carries risk and a suitable and sufficient risk assessment must be undertaken to determine the measures needed to ensure that risk and therefore hazards are adequately controlled.

Everyone working on a construction site is a duty holder and needs to have a clear understanding of what they must do to comply with their legal obligations; it’s in everyone’s interests (employer and employee) to do so. The cost of injury and ill-health through accidents on construction sites has significant consequences for the injured party and businesses alike. While improved safety standards is much welcomed, if the industry is to maintain and continue this upward trend, control of heath risks and safety must be a priority for all.

The HSE intends to consolidate the efforts of its recent initiative throughout the rest of 2014, looking at prevention and control of health risks in construction, alongside their continued assessment of the management of safety risk issues.

The HSE’s clear message to the construction industry is that they must: “Think health as well as safety.”

It’s therefore vital that employers and the self-employed accept the relevance of heath and safety, engaging the right help to achieve the required level of safety. External help can provide practical advice on all areas of workplace health and safety, and best practice can be achieved by continually assessing how the risks to health and safety are approached.

Renewed consideration to those areas the HSE addressed at their recent visits is advisable, including the standards in place for dust control, control of exposure to other hazardous substances, use of vibrating tools and exposure to noise. The HSE highlighted the impact of the hazards of dust exposure but no employer can afford to overlook control measures in all aspects of construction work to ensure they have acceptable standards throughout.

Tracy Smyth and Jim Byard are partners at national law firm Weightmans