Last edited 18 Jul 2017

Construction health risks

Despite big improvements, construction remains poses significant health risks to those who work in it. As an industry it accounts for a high percentage of fatal and major injuries, from things such as falling from height and equipment-related accidents, but it also poses many general risks to health.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate that around 4% of construction workers suffer from a work-related illness every year, and 3% sustain a work-related injury. This results in around 2.2 million working days being lost each year. However, the industry has tended to focus attention on the immediate risks of harm rather than the factors that can have a cumulative impact over time.

Statistics show that those who work in construction have a high risk of developing cancer; accounting for more than 40% of occupational cancer deaths and cancer registrations. On an annual basis, past exposures from construction work are estimated to cause 3,700 deaths from occupational cancer. The most significant causes of these cancers are as follows:

  • Asbestos (70%).
  • Silica (17%).
  • Paint (6-7%).
  • Diesel engine exhaust (6-7%).

There are a wide range of other potential risks:

  • Hazardous substances are common in construction work, and these can cause breathing problems, lung diseases, dermatitis, and so on. For more information, see Hazardous substances.
  • Physical health risks are prevalent in construction, particularly back injuries and upper limb problems, often as a result of repetitive motion.
  • Excessive noise from power tools can lead to hearing loss or problems such as tinnitus.
  • Vibration from power tools can cause nerve and tendon damage to hands, arms and wrists (i.e. Hand-arm vibration syndrome).
  • Heat stress can cause brain, heart, or kidney damage or even death.
  • Mental health problems amongst construction workers are the third most common reason for workplace absences from contractor organisations. There have been several initiatives, such as the Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B) scheme, that try to address these ‘unspoken’ issues. The Samaritans have reported that construction workers are six times more likely to die of suicide than a fall.

The reasons why construction workers face a high risk of occupational ill health are varied, including:

  • The site environment can be less controlled than an industrial environment like a factory
  • It is more dynamic, in that sites are constantly changing with a large number of different activities and trades operating simultaneously.
  • Work teams, such as subcontractors, can come with their own safety culture which may vary from others or the site in general.

The legislation affecting health and safety in design and construction falls under the Health and Safety at Work etc.

For more information, see Health and safety for building design and construction.

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM regulations) in particular are intended to ensure that health and safety issues are properly considered during a project’s development.

They include general requirements that apply to all projects and additional duties that only apply to notifiable construction projects (where the construction work is likely to last longer than 30 working days and have more than 20 workers working simultaneously at any point in the project, or exceed 500 person days). For more information see: CDM.

There is a legal requirement through the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) for a responsible person (employers, the self-employed and individuals in control of work premises) to notify and keep records of specified workplace incidents. For more information see: RIDDOR.

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