HSEQ in the construction sector: What are the most common injuries and how to eliminate them?

Mila Budeva
Mila Budeva
Mar 18, 2018

According to the HSE, approximately 64,000 construction workers in the UK sustain a non-fatal injury at work every year. It is important to note that the actual number of non-fatal injuries is likely to be even higher as “it is known that non-fatal injuries are substantially under-reported” [1].


Why is this problematic?

Heightened risk of fatalities

According to the theory of Heinrich’s triangle, the higher the number of non-fatal incidents, the higher the likelihood of fatalities. In the UK, the worker fatality rate in construction is 1.37 per 100,000 workers which is over 3 times the average rate across all injuries. In the UK alone, there were 30 fatal injuries to workers in the construction sector in 2016/2017 [2].


Where even one instance of death at the construction site should be unacceptable, the US statistics are even more disconcerting – 937 construction workers were killed in 2015, the highest number in any sector [3]. The state of Texas provides a shocking example where, on average, a construction worker dies once every three days because of unsafe working conditions [4].


The human cost

Workplace injuries have a far-reaching negative impact – from the personal lives of workers and their families, through workforce productivity, to employer image and credibility. A non-fatal injury can cost a worker their ability to work and provide for themselves in the future and can put pressure and financial uncertainty on their families. Even in instances where workers have received financial compensation for their injury, this cannot reverse the stress and trauma experienced by workers and their families.


Toll on productivity

In terms of lost productivity, for 2016/2017, 22% of construction injuries in the UK resulted in absence from work of over seven days. 2.3 million working days are lost annually in construction due to workplace injury and work-related illness, the equivalent of 10,000 full-time workers being absent from the workforce for the entire year [5].


Why do these incidents occur?

The main causes of specified injuries – a pre-defined list of certain injury types which includes fractures, amputations, serious burns, brain and spinal cord damage – for 2016/2017 are:


Data from HSE


Due to the nature of construction work the risk of incidents may be higher than in other occupations. However, the tens of thousands of injuries every year (in the UK alone) suggest that there are recurrent failures in the approach to health and safety in construction which can be eliminated.


As Mark Abrey and John Smallwood note in their academic research “The construction industry has been experiencing chronic problems such as poor health and safety (H&S), inferior working conditions, and non-achievement of quality, which have had an adverse effect on construction productivity, overall performance, and image” [6].


The long-term solution to eliminating these chronic issues would be to create and implement a proactive culture of safety. Transitioning towards a pre-emptive approach of training, on-the-job guidance and internal auditing can help to identify and eliminate unsafe practices, poor working conditions and operational non-compliance before they have taken a toll. Whereas this is no simple task, technology can facilitate it by enabling improved training and real-time communication between management and the field.


Lack of training and worker engagement

Research from the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health has found that workers in their first month on the job have more than 3 times the risk for a lost-time injury than workers who have been at their job for more than a year. It is also likely that workers with little prior experience or sufficient training may be unsure about their safety rights and responsibilities, and might feel uncomfortable speaking up about a hazard [7].


The lack of comprehensive and engaging training can result in workers misunderstanding regulations, safety procedures and underestimating risks, and consequently in unsafe behaviours and incidents. Technology enables a cost-efficient and more engaging way of training, making it easy and fun for workers to gain and retain knowledge. Rather than a one-off briefing on safety procedures, the head office can share with workers videos, quizzes, updates on regulations etc. which they can access on a mobile device anytime, anywhere. This way workers can better engage with the information and easily refer to it at the point of action. Implementing gamification – awarding badges or points for understanding and following best practice – also offers a way of ensuring evidence that workers are familiar with the on-site risks and rules.


Unsafe working conditions

Whereas regulations and a system of legal penalties are essential to ensuring accountability and compliance, often these are enforced post-hoc, in response to an accident or incident. For example, a scaffolding contractor was recently fined £100,000 after a 16-year-old apprentice fell four meters from a scaffold platform due to insufficient loading bay edge protection.


In the apprentice’s instance, what could have helped prevent “a fractured cheekbone, broken wrists and injuries to his ribs” as well as “13 stitches for a deep cut above his left eye”? [8]


Often workers resort to alerting external regulatory bodies of unsafe conditions as they do not have the internal communication channels in place or fear that their feedback might be used against them or would not be acted upon. A platform which enables the real-time communication between management and the frontline can help to establish a culture of visibility and collaboration from within, beneficial to all parties.


Providing frontline workers with the tools to report hazards in real-time directly to their management empowers them to voice concerns and become an active part of driving working conditions and building a culture of safety. In the same time, management gains visibility over operational execution and compliance, helping to pre-empt incidents and the human, productivity and monetary costs associated with them. This way companies can build a track record of compliance to serve as evidence to regulators.


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[1] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/industry/construction/construction.pdf#page=13

[2] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/industry/construction/construction.pdf#page=11

[3] https://aflcio.org/reports/death-job-toll-neglect-2017

[4] https://thinkprogress.org/texas-labor-conditions-construction-d86dfc3054c9/

[5] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/industry/construction/construction.pdf#page=16

[6] https://ac.els-cdn.com/S1877705814018888/1-s2.0-S1877705814018888-main.pdf?_tid=7c87a04f-e684-49b5-910d-6f02a713d21a&acdnat=1520876507_3db06ed64ca63e95261f1dac26b65c9f

[7] http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/14053-new-workers-higher-risk

[8] http://www.constructionenquirer.com/2018/03/01/16-year-old-apprentice-joiner-falls-from-scaffolding/