On Monday this week a worker on a construction site in central London, a former US naval building in Grosvenor Square, died after the building he was working on partially collapsed. At least one other person had to be treated treated for minor injuries.
Accidents on construction sites are all too common. In the period 2012/3 148 people were killed as a result of an accident at work. 39 of these worked in the construction industry. According to statistics from the Health and Safety Executive, although it accounts for only about 5% of the employees in Britain the industry accounts for 27% of fatal injuries to employees and 10% of reported major injuries.
The incident on Monday was a tragic accident that made the headlines. But there are other hazards faced by construction workers that don’t appear in the news. Construction workers can be exposed to various hazardous agents that can have a major impact on their health, the most important including
- asbestos – although no longer used in Europe it can be present in older buildings and workers can be exposed to asbestos containing dust during refurbishment and demolition work
- respirable crystalline silica – present in many materials used in construction of buildings
- diesel exhaust emissions – diesel powered vehicles and equipment are commonly used on construction sites
According to the HSE exposure to these agents has resulted in
- About 3 700 occupational cancer cases are estimated to arise each year as a result of past exposures in the construction sector;
- There were an estimated 74 thousand total cases and 31 thousand new cases of work-related ill health during 2012/13
- over 500 construction workers are believed to die from exposure to silica dust every year.
Construction workers can also be exposed to other chemicals, such as solvents which are present in paints, adhesives and other products. And they can be exposed to physical hazards such as noise, vibration and solar radiation.
The health effects from all these agents don’t appear over night. They are long term, sometimes only appearing many years after first exposure. So it’s easy to ignore them – but they are responsible for considerable more deaths than accidents at work. An article in the Observer last Sunday reported that last year there were 2,500 deaths due to asbestos exposure, 500 due to respirable crystalline silica exposure and 200 from diesel exhaust emissions. So 3,200 deaths due to exposure to hazardous substances compared to 39 due to accidents. A ratio of more than 80 to 1.
And it’s not just about fatalities. Occupational disease also affect quality of life. The HSE has estimated that averaged over the period 2009/10 to 2011/12 74,000 people whose current or most recent job in the last year was in construction, suffered from an illness (longstanding and new cases) which was caused or made worse by this job.
It’s important that employers make strenuous efforts to ensure the safety of their employees while working on construction sites to prevent tragedies like the accident that occurred last Monday. But, in addition, more attention needs to be paid to those health risks.