Survey reveals employer complacency on occupational health as HSE figures show no progress since summit

Construction employers are ignoring occupational health hazards and the need for safety reform, according to research published this week.

A survey of 2000 construction employers by the Institute for Employment Studies found 80% claim their companies already do enough to address health and safety.

The report coincided with the release of 2003/04 Health and Safety Executive figures showing no improvement in the incidence rate of occupational health problems since the 2001 safety summit.

At that event, the industry set itself targets to reduce the incidence of work-related ill health 20% by 2005.

Only 20% of respondents in the IES survey felt they ought to do more to improve health and safety. Despite this, 32% of the firms questioned had not provided any health and safety training to employees within the past year, and a quarter of small employers had never provided training.

The research also revealed that many employers do not recognise the danger of occupational health hazards such as heavy lifting and exposure to chemicals. Less than 15% considered exposure to dangerous substances and musculoskeletal hazards to be serious health risks. Only 2% believed site noise could cause hearing loss.

Rosi Edwards, HSE acting chief inspector of construction, called on employers to recognise the problems of occupational health. She said: “Work-related ill health affects a significant number of construction workers, and the sector has one of the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorder in the UK. Back problems, cement dermatitis and vibration white finger can ruin people’s lives.”

Back problems can ruin lives and force people out of the industry

Rosi Edwards, HSE

Edwards urged companies to make greater use of the resources available to address occupational health dangers. “The HSE has produced guidance outlining simple and sensible precautions to help clients, designers, planning supervisors and contractors take account of these hazards well before work starts on site,” she said. “Experience shows effective management of exposure to these risks can reduce or prevent injury and ill health to workers.”

The HSE estimates the number of new cases of illness caused or worsened by work was 1.6% among skilled construction workers, or 17,000 people. If existing sufferers are included, the figure rises to 5.5% of industry workers, significantly above the all-industry average of 3.7%.

The HSE figures reveal no decline in the incidence of specific types of ill health, with no change in stress, depression and musculoskeletal injuries since 2001. Construction workers lose 1.9 million days through musculoskeletal injuries every year, more than any other industry.

The findings of the IES survey and the unchanged HSE figures have prompted the team at occupational health scheme Constructing Better Health to call for the project to be extended beyond its pilot in Leicestershire.

Lawrence Waterman, CBH project director, said: “The results of this survey show beyond doubt that the industry, especially those running or working for smaller companies, needs access to the free and confidential package of services offered by the pilot. The feedback that we are receiving in Leicestershire is already showing that companies are receptive to what we are offering.”