There is growing evidence that the industry requires help in managing the welfare of its workforce. Constructing Better Health, a pilot scheme carried out in Leicester over the past 18 months, screened more than 2000 workers.
It found that more than one in three had an undetected health problem (see page 14). Furthermore, figures released this week by the Health and Safety Executive reveal that 4.7% of people working in construction have suffered work-related health problems, compared with an all-industry average of 3.4%.
The HSE already runs an occupational health scheme for the whole of British industry, but there is recognition that something extra is needed for the construction sector. The macho site culture means that workers need their health problems managed or they will be ignored and so go undetected. You only have to look at examples of large sites where it has been adopted, such as Heathrow Terminal 5, to see the benefits that screening can bring to the workforce: illnesses can be diagnosed at an early stage, heart problems monitored and drug and alcohol use on site stamped out. It also provides a forum for workers to talk through conditions of a more sensitive nature.
The key issue to address now is whether the regional pilot should be expanded and, if so, who will pay for it. It is a question that is being debated by employers associations, unions, CITB–Construction Skills, and safety consultants. For once the government can be heartened by the consensus that an often divided industry has presented on this issue. But the sums still need to be made to stack up.
There is a ready-made infrastructure for administering a national scheme, provided by, for example, not-for-profit pensions provider B&CE or the CITB.
It will take a lot of money to pay for health workers to visit hundreds of sites: it remains to be seen whether the government is convinced enough by the industry’s case, and the success of the Leicester scheme, to provide what’s needed. And then there is the question of whether private financiers can be brought on board to figure out a workable funding mechanism. Whatever situation plays out, in a climate where site skills are scarce, the notion that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce should convince every employer to rally around the cause.