Now’s the time to focus on the health part of health and safety

19 March 2020
Health and safety has taken huge leaps forward over recent years. However, much of the focus has been on ‘safety’ rather than ‘health.’ This is, in part, down to the fact that safety is easier to define, whereas health is a much wider topic and more difficult to assess. However, there are some areas of occupational health that can be isolated and where simple procedures can make a significant difference, but we first need to understand what the risks are.

Protecting the health of our workforce should be a critical consideration for every employer and part of this is understanding how working conditions can contribute to ill health. Not only is there a moral obligation for employers to protect employees, but what message does it give to a new generation of workers if we have an industry that is unsafe to work in? We are facing a huge skills shortage and need to attract people, not scare them off.

Site injuries are decreasing and deaths on sites have plateaued. But we need to think beyond injuries and deaths and consider illnesses. One major illness that affects so many people is cancer. Worldwide, 742,000 people die every year from occupational cancers, equating to one person every minute (Source: IOSH, 2017). In the UK there are 13,500 newly occurring cases of occupational cancer per year and 8,000 deaths from these diseases (Source: HSE, 2016/17). What many people don’t realise is that of this figure, over 40% of occupational cancer deaths arise from the construction industry (Source: HSE, 2016/17). Asbestos is responsible for the largest proportion of occupational cancer (Source: HSE, 2016/17) and 1 in 4 construction workers have been exposed to asbestos (Source: IOSH, 2018). Further, according to Construction Enquirer, construction workers have a six times greater risk of developing skin cancer than the general population. This is largely down to the fact that most site operatives are working outdoors for large proportions of their time.

The Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) has launched several Spotlight campaigns including women in construction, illegal workers and air quality. One of the campaigns looks specifically at occupational cancers. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the health risks involved in construction work – specifically those relating to occupational cancers – and the importance of taking proactive measures to safeguard all employees within the sector.

National UK cancer statistics show that in 2015 there were 359,960 new cancer cases and 163,444 deaths from cancer. Whilst there is a general perception that certain age groups are at a higher risk to cancer and activities like smoking can increase your chances, cancer is a disease that doesn’t discriminate in terms of people’s background. However, those working in certain industries are sadly at a higher risk and one of those industries is construction.

There are various types of cancer which affect the workforce; skin cancer and lung cancer have been identified as the two main types that significantly affect individuals working in the construction industry.

These can be caused by exposure to carcinogens and UV radiation in the workplace over a prolonged period of time. The causes can take various forms, from solid substances to gases and dust. Without appropriate control measures in place, workers can be exposed to these harmful substances by breathing them in, or absorbing them through the skin.

Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) is a major problem on building sites when undertaking activities such as drilling holes. The respirable dust specs have been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, among other things. There are solutions to attempt to prevent this, such as the use of dust masks, but this needs to be supported with training and further education, so that employees understand the risks and therefore adopt the use of dust mask as best practice, rather than overzealous health and safety procedures.

As market leaders in the supply of fixings, tools and consumables to the construction industry – and with a dedicated team for testing and training of the installation of fixings – VJ Technology is only too aware of the risks that dust on site presents. We support the actions of organisations, such as the CCS to bring occupational health to the forefront of individual’s minds and will do everything we can to support our customers and understand the risk associated with dust and associated elements and provide the support and training to help protect our workforce.