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Health in Construction Leadership Group - ‘Acting on our Commitment to a Healthier Future’ - Royal Institution London - 26 January 2017

Martin Temple CBE, HSE Chair

Good morning and a big thank you to everyone that has helped make this event happen, now the third of its kind over the last year. Thanks to the organisers and speakers here and at the follow-on workshop being attended by some of your colleagues. But, most importantly I want to thank you, the industry leaders who see the importance of collectively ‘committing construction to a healthier future’, to benefit the industry, workers and the wider economy.

I have had the privilege of being the Chair of the Health and Safety Executive since last May and I have quickly appreciated the progress that Great Britain’s Construction Industry has made in managing health and safety risk – it is world leading at safeguarding the lives and well-being of construction workers.  We are moving in the right direction but haven’t got it all quite right yet, and clearly that is why we have returned today, to explore how and what more we can do to reduce ill-health and disease in the industry.  I was stunned to hear that for every fatal accident in construction, about 100 more people die as a result of ill-health caused or made worse by past exposures to asbestos, silica and other hazardous substances.  

In the last few years, on average 2.2 million working days were lost each year in the construction industry through health and safety failings. 2.2 million! And 1.8 million of those days lost were due to ill-health. The economic cost of new ill-health cases in the construction industry is around £400 million pounds per year. And that does not include the considerable cost of diseases like cancer linked to historic exposures. These costs mean huge losses where it counts, on the ground. More sickness absence means less available labour, less expertise, increased recruitment needs and consequently training requirements. At a time when skilled resource is in demand, you can’t afford that.

When my own career started, I worked at British Steel Corporation, becoming a dutyholder aged 26, taking charge of nine large brickworks, including a silica brickwork, five quarries and a mine. At that time, the Health and Safety at Work Act had only shortly come into play and HSE was in its formative phase.

In industry we were seeing all this as a real challenge. ‘Accidents happen, these are dangerous places’ and ‘We can’t keep an eye on everybody all the time’. Being a good employer then meant paying more money to those taking risks, not necessarily protecting them! We paid condition money, dust money etc. etc. Everyone wanted these jobs as the money was so good - at the silica brickworks, we provided masks and milk to mitigate some of the dusty conditions!

That was the mind-set back then. How we have moved on! It is preposterous to hear those sorts of views today. It is reassuring how we have learnt to manage risk and change entirely our views on what is acceptable. And in particular for those who understand health and safety, they realise that good practice goes hand in hand with good productivity, good quality and consistent and timely delivery.

I am pleased to hear that things in construction are getting better… but we must all recognise that far more needs to be done.

The new health and safety system strategy, ‘Helping Great Britain work well’ has tackling ill-health as one of its six strategic themes. The purpose of today’s event reinforces many of the themes, not just ill-health. Other themes which are particularly relevant include:

“Acting Together”, which is about promoting broad ownership of health and safety. This means engaging everyone who shares the responsibility for helping Great Britain work well, because they have a vital role in managing risk and preventing damage to individuals, businesses and the economy.

Managing risk well is also vital – this theme is about simplifying risk management and helping business to grow; making sure risk management is proportionate and informed.

This dovetails with the theme on supporting small employers -  many of whom have a particularly longer path to travel; and  the need to give them simple and sensible advice to improve outcomes; they must be able to get the right information and take the right action easily and efficiently. The best large businesses and intermediaries are gaining more efficient supply chains and productive relationships by pointing SMEs in the right direction and not giving over complicated advice or imposing unnecessary barriers and costs. We all need to recognise the collective responsibility industry leaders have in setting the right standards and right conditions to help achieve the right outcomes.

It is great to hear that you are already tackling some of the key challenges. Significant progress has been made on safety, and as we know, management of health risks has not received the same level of attention. The commitment needs to be there to ensure health doesn’t remain the poor relation to safety’s more immediate and visible needs. Now is the time to ‘Think Health’ and take action.

Saving on the cost of accidents and ill health is a business investment that will also bring benefits in the here and now. Taking care of health boosts productivity and motivation, which in turn helps reduce sick leave and workforce turnover.

A substantial part of your employer’s liability insurance premium will be related to long term liabilities – we are talking about long latency work related health issues such as musculoskeletal disorders, hand-arm vibration, noise, silica and of course asbestos. Insurance costs are going up because payouts to cases of – for example - mesothelioma and noise induced hearing loss are going up so high. Being able to demonstrate that your company – and your industry - are managing health issues properly should mean that although premiums may well not get lower, they may at least stop getting much higher!

The alternative is leaving workers and the industry exposed – to health and business risks alike. At times when there are real pressures from skills shortages in the industry, people will choose to work for those employers who show that they care about health as well as safety. We need to attract young people into the industry to avoid skills gaps in the future. A well-run site with good conditions, proper welfare and rest facilities, and diligent effective site management is the first step to getting those young people into construction.

Improving the industry’s image will make it easier to recruit. Future sustainability is key to supporting the wider government strategy for the construction industry, ‘Construction 2025’. You will know more about it than me, I am sure, but it aims to make the industry more efficient by simplifying the construction process and making the best possible use of leading edge technology.  Importantly it recognises that British companies have world class expertise in architecture, design and engineering and that’s why we lead the way in sustainable construction solutions.

Today you need to make the commitment to lead the way in protecting the health of the construction worker. The Government has also produced a green paper setting out its aims to get more people back into work, and also reduce the numbers of those not in work who want to do so despite having a disability or long-term health condition.

Managing and controlling health risks requires some different thinking compared to safety but it is both possible and practical to carry out construction work without causing ill-health. Control the risks, don’t wait for the symptoms to manifest themselves, and be proactive in stopping people being exposed in the first place. Be clear that your focus is on the health risks associated with work.

Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on recording and monitoring of illness rather than trying to prevent it. Three key work related ill-health issues to tackle are:

1. Respiratory risks such as silica, with health impacts including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, lung cancer and Silicosis. And I have seen that it doesn’t require rocket science to reduce the risks. Also, asbestos continues to be a risk because of its presence in many buildings – it kills 2600 people each year within the UK construction sector. You are all no-doubt aware of the risk, but it is important that as major players in the industry, you should raise the awareness of smaller contractors and businesses to these dangers and convince them of the proper ways to control them.  

2. Manual handling issues are responsible for about two-thirds of work-related illness in the UK construction sector. The industry has made many technological innovations which have reduced levels of manual handling but the nature of the industry means these are often ignored when planning and carrying out jobs. You know that it makes good business sense if the moving and lifting of materials and equipment is properly planned and arranged to minimise manual effort. But too often we still see the option to just ‘put another man on the lift’.

And the third health issue to tackle is:

3. Mental ill-health. Stress and anxiety are responsible for almost a quarter of last year’s self-reported work-related illnesses and is an area that also requires greater attention. According to latest figures from the Samaritans there were more than 6000 suicides in the UK in 2014. It’s a complex problem but creating a workplace that enables workers to feel they can talk freely, that their concerns will be listened to and not dismissed, and importantly that those concerns can be acted upon with the help of others, is the right thing to do. The culture of some industry sectors continues to make recognition of work related stress quite challenging, but it is often present simply because of, for example, impossible deadlines or lack of control due to poor local management.

I am encouraged that today sees the launch of the industry’s ‘Mates In Mind’ initiative. I’d like to think that together with adoption of the principles within HSE’s Stress Management Standards this will go a long way toward tackling the issue.

HSE launched its own Health and Work Strategy last month – with thanks to the Chair of the Health in Construction Leadership Group, Clive Johnson for providing a construction site launch venue - and the three topic themes I’ve just mentioned are reflected in that strategy. It is a strategy for all GB’s workplaces, but you will recognise that construction needs particular focus. Not far off 4% of the construction workforce believed they had been made ill through just doing their job last year, or that their job made an existing illness worse.

We want to know how you are going to respond to this strategy. So, please spread the word about it and also let us know what you think and where you can see the opportunities to help deliver improvements.

We also expect your thinking on health to address issues of the future as well as those of the present and past legacies.

Effective management of work related health needs to be an integral part of your business and in doing so you will help to build a safer, healthier and more productive industry that maintains its world leading reputation.

Thank you for participating again today.

I’m reminded of a quote from the playwright Tom Stoppard that seems apt for what is being asked of you, the leaders of industry:

‘A healthy attitude is contagious, but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier’.

Updated 2019-10-22