Industry Leaders Outline the Challenge
Speakers at the Committing Construction to a Healthier Future summit yesterday included Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme, Dame Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, and Sir Malcolm Grant, chair of the NHS.
The summit also heard from Heather Bryant, director of health and safety at Balfour Beatty and Andy Mitchell, chief executive of Tideway – highlights from some of the speeches are summarised below.
But the first speaker was Simon Clark, who formerly ran a small electrical contracting business but who was diagnosed with the fatal lung cancer mesothelioma in 2012, following exposure to asbestos as an apprentice electrician 35 years ago.
His message was that the industry needed to reform its attitudes – for the sake of the young apprentices entering the industry today.
He told Construction Manager: “It’s about the young ones who don’t know [about asbestos], the apprentices who come in and don’t know. It’s about awareness, because people don’t know about the number of products where you can find asbestos.”
Among the statistics that punctuated the summit, delegates heard that:
Work-related cancers kill about 3,500 construction workers a year;
The construction sector lost 0.5 million working days to injury in 2014/15, but 1.2 million working days a year to work-related ill health;
The cost of work-related ill health to the UK economy was £9.4bn in 2014/15, and £1.3bn to the construction sector;
20 tradespeople die from asbestos-induced diseases every week.
Dame Judith Hackitt linked improvements in workplace health to productivity gains and tackling skills shortages. She said: “I am sure that if it was simple you’d have already done it – this is going to need some different thinking. But the industry has a good track record on culture change in safety and now is the time to apply it to health.
“But it’s not just about reducing costs to businesses and employees. At a time of skills shortages, people can choose who they work for, and they will choose those who care.”
Crossrail chairman Andrew Wolstenholme, co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council, said that major programmes carry a responsibility for tackling health risks, and Crossrail had trialed innovations such as “digibands” for workers to monitor the impact of shift patterns, and using robotic drills to eliminate worker exposure to hand-arm vibration and dust through drilling.
He told the summit that “we are very good at shouting about safety, but we can only whisper about health”, and later said “it’s no good giving people fruit and porridge as they come through the turnstile if we’re then giving them exposure to dust and carcinogens”.
Tideway's Andy Mitchell described how his company had set up health centres for workers
Tideway’s Andy Mitchell emphasised that the summit delegates were hardly representative of a workforce that is often transient or far from home, with the stress of minimal security of employment.
He described how Tideway was setting up well-equipped health centres on its sites, putting all workers through a five-day induction process, and offering workers and their families trips on the Thames to find out more about the project they’re working to deliver.
“Often on site people don’t have a sense of ownership, and then we’re surprised when we don’t engage with the health and safety culture. But the river trips are available to everyone – if it’s good enough for the managers, it’s good enough for them. It’s about extending that behaviour and respect to everyone working on the job.
“We want people to have higher expectations of how they’re treated, it’s an important part of the transformational changes we’re trying to achieve.”