Time, competition, escalating costs and other factors can put pressure on construction projects, but that doesn’t mean health and safety can take a back seat.
Besides the risk considerations required to protect every business and its people, there are some that require special attention or are unique to the construction industry, these are outline below.
Select a subject below to learn how it is particularly relevant within the construction industry:
Any worker on a construction site can be at risk from exposure to asbestos, including those not directly involved with the handling of materials that might contain it, like plumbers, electricians and heating engineers. Unwittingly drilling into a wall or fitting that contains asbestos can happen all too easily.
All buildings and structures built or refurbished before 2000 have the potential to contain asbestos, which as an airborne dust can be breathed in and cause serious damage to lungs, resulting in cancer and / or other asbestos-related diseases.
The applies to all work with asbestos. The work methods and controls it prescribes, including the provision of personal protective equipment, should be followed, however small the chance is that the site or materials contain asbestos.
As many construction sites are unenclosed and exposed to the open air, workers and visitors can mistakenly believe it’s okay to smoke on them, only considering the secondary smoke inhalation risk that comes from it.
During working hours in particular, flammable and explosive substances are more likely to also be out in the open so it could just take one cigarette not completely stubbed out to spark a fire that results in injury, loss of life and property damage.
On a construction site there can be a variety of confined spaces that a worker may find themselves in, including some that aren’t entirely obvious, like underground drains and sewers, the insides of large plant and machinery, and rooms where work takes place that affects the air content, such as spray painting.
In these situations, a lack of airflow can cause fumes to build up, or the amount of oxygen in the air to be depleted, leading to loss of consciousness and even death from asphyxiation. What can often make such situations worse are other people trying to rescue them without the proper training and equipment.
A confined space is not necessarily one that is entirely enclosed. It can be a space that could become enclosed, could be difficult to escape in an emergency, or where materials falling into it might lead to a person being trapped or immersed.
It might be difficult at first to see how a construction company could be seriously impacted by a cyber attack, but in 2015 there was an estimated 77,000 incidents of online crime against construction premises. 10% of these crimes involved computer viruses and an estimated 2,000 businesses suffered theft of money as a result of a cyber incident.1
Our world is becoming increasingly reliant on technological connectivity, and for construction companies this can mean the sensitive details of financial transactions, plans, communications and development work are kept on connected devices and cloud-based storage. Not only this, as the development of automated plant and machinery increases, so does the opportunities for cyber criminals to attack those too, causing costly disruptions.
Electricity poses risks of fire and to health and safety. Electrical installations and equipment used incorrectly, not maintained, or damaged can spark a fire or electrocute workers. Unlike other hazards, electricity cannot be seen or heard and it’s too late by the time you feel it to escape.
Electrocution can kill, and where shocks aren’t fatal they may cause severe and permanent injuries. On a construction site, even a low voltage shock can have serious consequences if it leads to a fall from access equipment or working platforms.
Electric and hybrid vehicles
The popularity of electric and hybrid vehicles is only increasing and so there's a need to adapt working environments to suit the hazards they come with.
The battery packs in these vehicles contain a lot of stored energy which can be released in a number of potentially hazardous ways, e.g. if the battery is damaged or faulty, or recharged incorrectly. Many electric cars use nickel-metal hydride batteries, but some use lithium-ion batteries which have been known to ignite (due to thermal runaway) as a result of faulty manufacture or damage.
Swift and safe evacuation of workers and visitors, in the event of a fire or other quickly evolving dangerous situation, can be troublesome on a construction site. Workers may be at height and reliant on motorised access equipment, or ladders that can only be used by one person at a time, to return to the ground. Anyone in a confined space may find it similarly difficult to make a prompt escape.
Don’t forget to think about neighbouring premises and work with the tenants and owners to ensure there is a procedure in place for any emergency that might also impact their site. Prepare not just for situations that might put people at risk, but also where there could be environmental damage, like an oil spillage close to a river.
Escape of water
Fire resistance and control
Due to the temporary nature of construction sites, it might not seem worthwhile to install some safety measures that prevent fires from spreading, such as sprinkler systems and automatic extinguishers fitted to plant. If a fire was to get going though, you might very quickly regret that decision. The materials used in the construction process and any compartmentation included in the design will be a vital consideration when thinking about what you need to resist and control fires.
Besides installations, firefighting equipment, including handheld extinguishers and fire blankets, can be made available. These are usually only recommended for use when a fire has just been detected and not had the chance to grow. Even at this early stage, only someone trained should extinguish the fire. Equipment also needs to be regularly maintained and checked, and the trained workers should be able to recognise immediately if there are any faults or damage that would make them ineffective.
First aid and hygiene
Construction workers can be particularly vulnerable to injuries and illnesses as their jobs naturally expose them to more situations where they could get a cut, crush, burn, scald or fall injury, compared to office workers (for instance).
Bacterial infections and diseases, such as leptospirosis, can also easily become an issue if animals like rats are present or where the work involves handling hazardous substances. Workers should therefore have access to facilities that allow them to wash and disinfect as necessary, particularly before eating, regardless of the length of time they will be working on the site.
A first aid needs assessment must be undertaken to identify the first aid arrangements required, with first aiders receiving appropriate training, relevant to the type of injuries that might occur. Provision of one appointed person will always be expected, with even smaller sites having person(s) trained in emergency first aid at work and / or first aid at work.
Flammable liquids and gases
It's not uncommon for liquefied petroleum gases (LPG), such as propane and butane, and welding gases like acetylene, to be present on a construction site, as well as mains gas, gases that occur naturally, and fuels for vehicles. All flammable substances such as these need to be used, stored and handled with care.
It's essential that workers follow the guidance contained within the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) Approved Code of Practice (ACoP). This includes safety advice, such as recommended maintenance of associated equipment and actions to take if cylinders, canisters, hoses or related appliances become damaged or defective.
Paints, thinners, silica dust, cleaning fluids, glues, cement dust and wood dust are all examples of hazardous substances that construction workers typically work with on a regular basis. If such a substance makes direct contact with skin or eyes, is breathed in, or is swallowed via contaminated material, it can cause illness, including cancer, asthma and dermatitis.
The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations prohibits the use of hazardous substances at work unless the risks from such substances have been assessed and exposure prevented or adequately controlled.
Wherever there might be the combination of operations involving open flames and heat and flammable or explosive substances, there needs to be serious thought put into safety measures.
As much as is possible, alternatives to hot work should be used. ‘Hot work’ includes welding, grinding and the use of hot air guns. Where it can’t be avoided, a thorough risk assessment needs to be completed by someone with a good understanding of the hazards that can make hot work particularly dangerous, and they must be able to identify if any of those hazards could be present, as well as know how to reduce and control the risk they pose.
Intruder detection and theft deterrents
Due to the temporary and open nature of construction sites, providing measures to detect and deter intruders might seem an unmanageable task and a financial strain. An increasing number of affordable tools for security are becoming available however, often as a result of technological advances and developments in manufacturing processes.
Intruder alarms and security lighting can significantly reduce the amount of time a trespasser is comfortable on the site. To suit the needs of construction sites, temporary or portable devices are available, including some designed for scaffolding to deter unauthorised use.
Other theft prevention measures, such as tracking devices and security marking, have the potential to make recovering stolen items easier, thus deterring thieves who fear being tracked down.
Traditional methods like security lighting can still be a great way of putting off anyone considering trespass and, where there's a particularly high risk of theft taking place, CCTV and on-site security personnel can prove worth the cost.
Lifting equipment and operations
Many construction workers are killed or seriously injured during lifting operations because of accidents such as cranes overturning, gin wheels collapsing and hoists being overloaded.
The Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations requires that any equipment for lifting or lowering loads is strong and stable enough for each task it’s used for. The equipment must be marked to indicate safe working loads, positioned and installed to minimise any risks, operated by competent people with good planning and organisation, and only used if it has been inspected and is subject to on-going thorough examination.
Machinery guarding and intervention
Machinery can be dangerous if it’s used to do a task it’s unsuitable for, if it’s damaged or not properly maintained, and also when used by someone lacking the right training and experience. Injuries and fatalities happen due to machinery parts and sharp edges striking people or being struck, body parts being drawn in between rollers, belts and pulley drives and people becoming trapped between moving parts. There are also sometimes hazards present that can cause burns, scalds and electrocution.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations sets out the requirements for the use of machinery, and that includes ensuring it’s safe and suitable, only operated by people who have the right information, instruction and training, and that there are appropriate safety measures, such as protective devices, markings and warnings.
Meeting these requirements might be difficult on construction sites, since machinery often needs to be moved and it is more likely to be used by temporary workers and contractors, but that actually makes it all the more important to maintain machinery safety measures.
Considering the often physical nature of the work, it’s unsurprising that statistics usually show the construction industry has one of the highest rates of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Tools used in construction trades often require the user to be moving about in awkward positions and make repetitive and forceful movements. Damage then builds up cumulatively over time, but it can also take just one bad lift to cause a lifetime of pain and disability.
As much as possible, manual handling should be avoided by using machinery and equipment or rethinking work processes. Where there's no alternative, the Manual Handling Operations Regulations (MHOR) requires that manual handling operations are risk assessed and that there are measures to reduce risk of injury, such as training, the provision of suitable equipment and health surveillance.
Just two hours per day of exposure to noise levels at or above 85 dB can put workers at risk of hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus. Hazardous noise levels are often reached during many common construction site tasks, such as carpentry, concrete drilling, angle grinding and driving a dumper or roller.
As a general rule, if you need to shout to be heard by someone two metres away, the noise level is putting your hearing at risk. Don’t forget that sudden but very loud noises can also be damaging.
Prevention should always be the first defence against noise and this can be achieved by eliminating noisy processes during the design and planning process, using alternative processes that don’t make so much noise, and putting sound-resistant barriers between workers and the source.
The HSE’s 'Buy Quiet' campaign provides resources for purchasers and users of plant and machinery to help with controlling the risk from noise.
Physical security measures
Valuable equipment and materials used in the open or stored within temporary structures, and / or external storage of plant and vehicles visible to passers-by, can make construction sites a very tempting target for thieves.
Professional thieves will often watch the site to see the routines and work out the best times for them to enter and take their pick – and this isn’t necessarily when the site is closed. Equipment left unattended while its user has just stepped away for a break, or to speak with a colleague, can promptly vanish if the professional spots that this is a regular occurrence, or if an opportunist takes their chance.
As well as intruder detection systems, all of the following need to be considered to make your site less attractive to thieves, and prevent those still tempted from achieving their goals.
Silt, cement, concrete, fuel, lubricating and shutter release oils, petrol, cleaning fluids and sewage are all common materials that can become pollutants on construction sites.
Environmental pollution law is complex, wide ranging and not totally consistent across the whole of the UK, so it's often advisable to seek professional advice or get a full environmental and ecological impact assessment or audit done for each construction site that you manage.
Many pollution incidents occur when storage tanks are being replenished, so make sure that all deliveries and movements of pollutants are supervised by a responsible person and check before deliveries to prevent overfilling.
Site traffic management
According to the HSE, about seven workers die and a further 93 are seriously injured on UK construction sites each year due to accidents involving vehicles. The vehicles range from privately owned cars to suppliers’ lorries and from on-site lift trucks to hired dumpers, but for all there are the same key issues.
Pedestrian and vehicle traffic on and around the site needs to be managed so that there's minimal chance of a collision. This can be achieved by designing and implementing routes that keep people and vehicles apart and reduce the need for vehicles to reverse or make tight manoeuvres. Traffic routes must also then be maintained so that they are kept clear of obstructions and hazards and have effective safety signs and instructions.
Extra precautions can be necessary for high-sided vehicles and extendable mobile plant to ensure that they don’t overturn due to high winds or loss of balance.
Slips and trips
A site under construction is naturally going to progressively change during the completion of works, with floors becoming uneven, wet or slippery and even their levels changing and steps or slopes being introduced.
Newly erected walls or partitions can mean light is obstructed and within the site there may be electrical equipment and lighting that requires cables and materials that have been moved about and left on floors.
There are several thousand injuries in the UK construction industry every year as a result of slips and trips2 due to hazards such as these, but they can easily be avoided with cooperation from the entire workforce.
Anyone who notices a hazard ought to sort it immediately or, if they're unable, report it, and if they spot a persistent issue, they should feel able to voice their concerns. Signs around hazards like wet floors and to designate walkways that must be kept clear should be part of the health and safety management system on the site and there needs to be adequate lighting that is reviewed whenever there is a change to the layout.
During excavations, there's a danger that electricity and telecommunication cables and gas, water and sewer pipes can be struck, causing injury to anyone nearby and damage and significant disruption on-site and in the surrounding areas.
This can be avoided with careful planning and by making use of devices to assist with locating services / utilities, and safe digging practices.
Additionally, unexploded bombs and ordnance can be a hazard on some construction sites. Such finds might not be easy to predict, but it's something that workers should be aware of and they must know what to do if they suspect they have found, or they suspect there might be, unexploded ordnance.
Using handheld tools, like drills, hammers and power cutters, and hand-operated machinery, including vehicles, such as lift trucks, can expose construction site workers to damaging levels of vibration. This can lead to a variety of debilitating health issues, such as Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS), so it is vital that the hazard is assessed, controlled and reviewed.
As with manual handling and noise, the first method pursued to protect workers should always be elimination. Find and implement alternative processes and equipment that remove the hazard. For instance, it may be possible to replace or modify handheld machinery so that it can be remotely controlled.
After all options for elimination have been exhausted, ways to reduce exposure to and the impact of vibration should be investigated.
Every construction site produces waste materials but, unlike permanent business premises, like shops and offices, which will have regular removals arranged, there might not be a process set up immediately to have the flow managed. On top of this, the waste materials are more likely to be hazardous. This can lead to a situation that poses a health and safety risk, makes working on the site more difficult, and provides a great starting point for a fire, as well as a pollution incident.
As with preventing pollution, the legislation for waste matters can be complex and varies across the UK, but there's a common theme for a duty of care to be applied to anyone who produces, stores or transports waste.
Before a construction project is started, how waste will be managed needs to be investigated and planned. There will be unique factors on every site, including the types of waste produced, the amount of space that can be used for storage, and the services available for disposal, as well as access points for delivery and removal vehicles.
Whether it’s pouring rain or blazing sun, the weather greatly affects work on construction sites.
It can produce a variety of health and safety risks, including slips and trips, sunburn and heatstroke, cause significant property damage via flooding, lightning strikes and strong winds, and be the catalyst for an environmental disaster due to the spread of polluting materials.
The weather in the UK is renowned for being unpredictable, so all possibilities need to be considered and defences for each prepared. Workers need to know how to protect themselves from hot, cold and wet weather and there needs to be materials, equipment and storage locations available to prevent property and environmental damage.
Working at height
From 2018/19 to 2020/21, 33% of reported non-fatal accidents resulting in specified injuries in the UK Construction industry involved falls from height. In addition, in the five year period up to 2020/21 falls from height accounted for 50% of fatal injuries in the sector3.
These incidents happen for various reasons, such as fragile or unstable surfaces not being signposted or made inaccessible, floor openings being left unprotected and workers not having the right equipment or not using it correctly.
If work at height is planned, organised, appropriately supervised and carried out by competent workers in as safe a way, injuries and fatalities can be prevented.
The risk from falling objects or collapsing structures shouldn’t be overlooked when planning work at height. Materials or tools falling from height can cause injury and even death to anyone struck by them, and a structural collapse is dangerous not only to anyone working on or in it, but also those nearby, including the public.