There continues to be a noticeable shift in emphasis in our sector from ‘safety’ to ‘health’. In a speech earlier this year to construction industry leaders, Dame Judith Hackitt, the then Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chair, discussed the many improvements made in workplace safety during her eight-year tenure. As Dame Hackitt explained, improving the health of your employees, particularly in the construction industry, will help to increase motivation, productivity and profitability.
Moving towards an occupational health focus
On the whole, the British construction industry has become quite good at reducing the general safety risks posed to workers on-site. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) like steel toe caps and hard hats is now standard to help protect against injury. But occupational diseases continue to be a serious problem. Asbestos-related lung diseases are rising year on year, although these tend to be related to historical exposure. Cases of other illnesses like silicosis – caused by the inhalation of sand and dust particles – continue to be recorded, despite cause and prevention being well understood.
These diseases have major implications for businesses. According to HSE statistics, around 95 per cent of all work-related deaths are caused by exposure to dusts and chemicals. Work absences brought on by safety-related incidences steal all the headlines, but occupational illnesses result in twice as many lost man days when employees are too unwell to work.
Investing in your employees
Logically, if you invest in improving the health of your workers, this should generate a healthy return. If employees are healthy, they are less likely to take time off work, therefore boosting productivity and output.
These moves also have a secondary benefit. By demonstrating commitment to your employees’ health, you are also demonstrating that they are a valued part of your business. This helps to raise loyalty and avoid secondary costs for recruitment or basic training for new starters.
At a time when skills are at a premium, your business needs to do everything possible to appear attractive to potential employees. And a track record of investing in your workforce is one of the best advertisements possible, helping you to stand out from your competitors as a place where people really want to work.
More than just lung-related diseases
Programmes such as Breathe Freely (www.breathefreely.org.uk), from the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, are, as the name suggests, focused on reducing lung-related occupational illnesses. But there are other occupational conditions that also need to be considered.
Musculoskeletal disorders continue to be a problem
Working on construction sites is physically demanding, greatly increasing the potential for injury. PPE goes some way to reducing these risks, but other afflictions are caused by poor work habits. Lifting and manual handling takes place almost every day on-site, so employees should be used to doing so safely. Yet, despite this expectation, manual handling accounts for 64 per cent of all work-related injuries in the construction sector. Employers have also known about the risks associated with manual handling for decades – so it’s time they started to take the lead in managing them.
Further investment in handling technologies can help to protect workers against injury and help them to be more effective and productive. In Dame Hackitt’s words, “productivity gains can often go hand in hand with risk reduction”.
Workplace stress – it’s not all in the mind
Workplace stress has a serious effect on the wellbeing of your employees – around 20 per cent of all self-reported illnesses recorded by employers last year were stress-related. And like any illness, stress may result in your workers having to take time off work to recover.
Identifying the causes of stress is notoriously
difficult, particularly as each individual responds to workplace pressure differently. But factors like ineffective management or poor working conditions are common contributing factors. Hard as it may be, your team needs to raise site standards across the board in order to minimise the risk of any employees developing a stress-related medical condition.
The future of health and safety
To continue raising standards, your business will need to start considering, and addressing, issues that cannot be seen, as well as those that can. Thinking about the long-term health implications of the conditions on your sites is vital to keeping your workers safe, both now, and well into the future.
Whether employees commit their entire career to your business or not, you have a moral obligation to protect their health, and there are immediate benefits to be had – even if these are just in terms of reduced absenteeism.
You can contact Veritas Consulting on 0800 1488 677 for more help and advice on occupational health strategies.