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03 Nov 2022
by Liz Naulls

There’s a health crisis facing construction. It's time to act

Despite improvements in health and safety for construction workers, the lack of health and wellbeing support is shocking, with site workers three times more likely to die by suicide

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Working in the construction industry is bad for your health.

Construction workers have among the poorest health outcomes, but not necessarily as a result of accidents or health and safety failures on a building site. The health and wellbeing crisis looming over building sites across the country is less obvious, more insidious and potentially even more dangerous: mental health.

I saw this first hand as a speaker at a health and wellbeing panel at UK Construction Week in Birmingham in early October 2022. The event showcased the sector’s ingenuity and commercial resilience.

But what struck me was the lack of urgency and, frankly, the seeming lack of leadership in terms of tackling what is clearly an incredibly challenging, yet deeply embedded status quo.

Despite much needed safeguards introduced in the last decade to improve site and worker safety, workforce health and wellbeing continues to feel like an afterthought. As an industry outsider, I was shocked.

Looking at the data, it’s obvious that over the last few decades, health and safety has rightly become a priority across the construction industry, with HSE figures suggesting sustained success in preventing accidents and reducing injury.

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High occupational cancer risk

However, according to HSE data, the risk of death from occupational cancer is highest in the construction industry, accounting for over 40% of deaths (HSE, 2021). And these are not simply due to historic exposure to contaminants like asbestos.

The HSE predicts that as a result of other contributory factors such as shift work and solar radiation (ie sun exposure) the “construction industry will probably continue to account for the largest number of occupational cancer cases in the future”.

Construction workers are also still more likely to be injured at work than workers across all industries (almost 3% of will be injured in the course of their job, with 41% of those injured requiring more than three days off work and a quarter requiring more than a week). How much support do employers offer people struggling with a long-term illness like cancer? Or an injury requiring prolonged absence from the workplace?

Mental health: stark facts

Perhaps the most worrying of all, and requiring immediate action, is the state of mental health within the sector. The facts are shockingly stark. In construction, according to charity Mates in Mind, site-based men are three times more likely to die by suicide than the national average and two people working in construction die by suicide every day.

A report by the Chartered Institute of Building found that 97% of construction industry workers had experienced stress over the last year and 26% of construction industry professionals had thought about taking their own lives (CIOB, 2019).

Despite this, according to a report by the Chartered Institute of Building, 56% of construction professionals work for organisations with no policies on mental health.

While some enlightened employers are starting to do more, (for example, offering crisis support via traditional employee assistance helplines) in many cases health benefits, particularly those providing tangible mental health support, are limited to senior employees, leaving the rest of the workforce with little or nothing.

A plea to the industry

At Lime, we are not construction industry specialists, our expertise lies in whole of workforce healthcare and wellbeing. We would like to better support the workers in the construction industry, but we can’t do it alone.

This is a plea to employers in the construction industry but also to our colleagues in the benefits, health and wellbeing sector. There is a crisis unfolding right under our noses in construction. Take notice and take action.

We need more insight, particularly into mental health in the industry, we need more support for both employers and workers and we need those working within the sector to say enough is enough and demand real change.

If you’re an employer in the construction or an adjacent industry, it’s important to act. Start by asking what’s happening in your workforce.

What happens when someone is struggling with a long-term illness like cancer, or an injury that requires time off work? Do your people feel comfortable talking about their health struggles, particularly mental health? What support do you have available? Could you offer more?

Whatever you do, the evidence is clear. The time to act is now.

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