Sustainability in construction – nice to have or burning platform?
Blog post written by Shaun McCarthy OBE, Chairman at Supply…
Today, the severity of failings in building site health and safety is likely to be higher than most other sectors. In the 12 months preceding April 2021, 39 workers died on construction sites in the UK according to the Health and Safety Executive, more than a quarter of the country’s all-industry fatality total of 142. The sector has a fatal injury rate four times the average for all sectors. Construction deaths in Spain in the first quarter of 2021 alone totalled 22. In Norway, construction accidents accounted for almost a fifth of work deaths last year and in Sweden it was almost two-fifths, though that may reflect decreased activity in some other sectors during early waves of the pandemic.
The high death and injury toll on building sites all over the world reflects the hazardous nature of the work and the challenges of controlling workspaces that are in constant flux. The most common causes of serious work accidents include working at height and working around moving vehicles – activities that are central to construction. The shifting nature of work sites compounds these risks. Layouts change regularly as a projects progress, making it harder to maintain safe pedestrian routes and exclusion zones where workers are safe from falling objects.
Controlling construction site safety risks takes priority, however building work has more than its fair share of health hazards as well. From dermatitis triggered by handling wet cement to noise-induced hearing loss from air-fed tools, construction operatives risk developing debilitating conditions in future years. Some of these hazards can be managed with simple administrative or engineering controls. Airborne construction dust, which has been linked to respiratory diseases, can be reduced by water spraying and banning dry sweeping with brooms.
Training and equipping your own employees well will get you closer to controlling all these hazards, and to achieving the highest levels of construction health and safety. That being said, all that effort alone will not protect you if contractors who join them on sites are not working to the same standards. If the weakest link on your site is a contractor, the fact their workers are not your direct employees will not act as a buffer for you against the consequences of an accident. The disruption to your operation will be the same, and in many jurisdictions, construction health and safety regulation means you could share liability with the contractor for injury to their workers.
The best way to achieve zero contractor accidents on your site is not about picking companies with poor accident and ill health records, but trying to encourage them to improve their performance. It is better to ensure that anyone arriving on your site has the potential to deliver the health and safety excellence you require from day one.
By prequalifying potential contractors, you can ensure they have the right level of commitment to training their workers and achieving the comprehensive health and safety standards critical to maintaining safe sites. Carefully vetted contractors will also reduce your organisation’s risk of being unwittingly exposed to supporting modern slavery or underpayment of workers, which is an ongoing concern in the sector. In 2020, almost one in five labour exploitation cases reported to UK anti-human trafficking charity Unseen’s national helpline involved construction companies.
Companies who have been pre-assessed for their sound health and safety systems are also more likely to bring a whole package of ancillary benefits to a project, such as pride in their work, higher quality standards, better housekeeping on site and consideration for neighbouring premises’ occupants.
All contractors should be able to show clients they have robust health and safety management structures, but that is far from the reality. According to our data, fewer than two in five (37%) of construction suppliers in the UK have certified health and safety management systems, accredited to standards such as ISO 45001. That percentage falls to 30% in Spain and just 11% in the Nordic countries.
Achilles gathers detailed information on contractors’ systems for managing health and safety, human rights and sustainability as well as their financial stability. Our auditing process relieves you of the guesswork or the research effort needed to find a construction partner who will align with the standards you set on site, giving you the reassurance that your construction project has the right foundation to achieve zero accidents.