Health risks of being a construction worker

Nov 12, 2015

In part one of this two part feature, Simon Jukes, deputy chief occupational advisor, at MOHS Workplace Health*, looks at the health risks associated with the construction industry.

Every year, more working days are lost to work related illnesses compared to injuries – despite improvements to reduce the number and rate of illnesses in the construction industry. 

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show construction workers have a high risk of developing diseases from a number of health issues:

  • Cancer: construction has the largest burden of occupational cancer among the industrial sectors, accounting for more than 40% of deaths and cancer registrations. Significant causes are asbestos (70%), silica (17%) and diesel engine exhaust fumes (6-7%).
  • Hazardous substances: some processes emit dusts, fumes, vapours, chemicals or gases into the air, which can be significant causes of breathing problems and lung diseases. Construction workers also have high rates of dermatitis from exposures to hazardous substances.
  • Physical health risks: skilled construction trades have one of the highest estimated number of back injuries and upper limb disorders, and one of the highest rates of ill health caused by noise and vibration.

Underlying causes

There are many reasons, say the HSE, why construction workers have a high risk of developing occupational diseases. These include:

  • construction sites – work takes place in many and varied environments, which can present a range of health risks, including existing ones like asbestos.
  • dynamic nature of the work – sites are constantly changing and a large number of trades may be carrying out tasks potentially dangerous to their own and others’ health.
  • Risk appreciation – low awareness of health risks and controls needed. It can take many years for serious conditions to develop and the immediate consequence of a harmful workplace exposure may often be overlooked compared with the immediate impact of injuries caused by accidents.
  • Employment – many workers are either self employed, work for small companies, frequently change employers or work away from home, with little or no contact with occupational health professionals.

Managing the risks

  • Ill health can be prevented’ – construction work can be carried out without causing ill health
  • ‘Treat health like safety’ – managing health risks is no different from managing safety risks
  • ‘Everyone has a role to play’ – all must take responsibility to manage health risks
  • ‘Control the risk, not the symptoms’ – health surveillance programmes are highly effective but the first priority is to prevent exposure in the first place.
  • ‘Legal requirement’ – to prevent or adequately control work related health risks.

In a future blog, Simon will take a look at what can be done through health surveillance to reduce the health risks in the construction industry.

*MOHS Workplace Health is an accredited member of Constructing Better Health (CBH), which sets the industry standards for workplace health in UK construction. 


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