The importance of workers safety cannot be overstated in an industry that employs over an estimated 3.1 million people, 9% of the national workforce, and contributes approximately 7% to the country’s GDP. Occupational Health and Safety places the utmost focus on preserving human life through regulations and procedures intended to prevent accidents or injuries in workplaces or public environments.
The construction sector is continuously updating its approach to site safety but remains a high-risk industry due to ever-increasing project demand and complexity. Internationally the sector has been responsible for a high amount of work-related ill health and continues to face high rates of fatal and non-fatal injuries and accidents among its workers.
The Present Situation
Taking a closer look at Health and Safety figures within the UK construction sector reveals some concerning facts. Currently, the UK has an annual average of 37 construction-related fatalities according to historical reports from 2015-2019. According to HSE, as of 2020, reportedly 81,000 construction workers suffered from work-related ill-health in the UK with approximately 61,000 non-fatal work injuries recorded. The rate of self-reported non-fatal injuries by workers has steadily shown a downward trend. In a more recent report from the HSE, out of the 142 worker fatalities due to work-related injuries nationally, 39 (27%) were attributed to the construction industry from 2020 to March 2021. The rate of death is the greatest for older age groups. When taking into account different employment levels between sectors, construction does not have the highest fatal injury rate per 100,000 workers. However, over half of all fatal injuries to workers in 2020-2021 have been attributed to two sectors namely agriculture, forestry and fishing, and construction. In addition, the number of fatal injuries in 2020-2021 for several of the main industry sectors is higher than the annual average over the past five years. The rate of fatal injury in construction was found to be 4 times more than the average rate across all industries. From an economic perspective, an estimated 38.8 million working days have been lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2019-2020, costing the economy approximately £16.2 billion.
Based on historical data employees in the construction industry are at a greater risk of developing cancer from their work than any other industry group. Due to the risk of exposure to asbestos, silica, diesel engine emissions, various paint mixtures as well as solar radiation and hazardous substances that cause skin cancer. Some of the most common construction site hazards include falling from heights, various electrical shocks, being struck by an object, or being caught between two objects. Special attention should also be given to the shocking amount of suicides within the construction sector. According to the Office for National Statistics over 1,400 construction workers committed suicide in the UK between 2011-2017 which is more than three times the national average for men. Research conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University and the Lighthouse Club showed that the number of suicides per 100,000 construction workers has increased since 2015, with data further revealing that those working in the construction industry are three times more likely to take their own life than in any other sector. These harrowing figures are not solely applicable to the UK but rather a global concern.
Despite Health and Safety constantly evolving the industry remains high-risk with some workers suffering from serious long-term ill health because of musculoskeletal disorders, cancer, dermatitis or asbestosis. These risks are not solely applicable to workers but also to members of the public who occasionally suffer fatalities and injuries due to construction activities. It should come as no surprise that Health and Safety remain a critical challenge among companies.
Especially with regards to the national labour shortage face by the sector with the Office for National Statistics showing 33,000 job vacancies making the shortage the second-highest level of vacancies in the preceding 20 years. The industry’s performance has shown a steady
long-term improvement, but there is no room for complacency in the fight to prevent future accidents from occurring and attracting new labour to the industry.
How Technology is Improving Safety
Numerous technological innovations are making an impact in the sector. Wearable safety technology continues to gain popularity. With a wide range of applications, wearable safety devices can be small and monitor vital signs similar to a smartwatch, or be big enough to deploy airbags, have GPS locators or detect hazardous chemicals in the air. Construction companies have embraced the use of drones to monitor and manage site safety. Virtual reality and augmented reality have been increasingly used during the pandemic period for training, identifying risks and planning purposes to limit potential accidents.
The list of new safety technology continues but for this article, we will focus on how software solutions are improving Health and Safety in the construction sector:
- Increased Communication:
Construction sites are a mass of moving parts coming together in ordered chaos to perform widely different tasks toward a common goal. One of the main problems with regards to Health and Safety is communication between various working teams. Team leads are understandably primarily concerned with members of their group. Inevitably when warnings about hazards are communicated, at the forefront of their mind is communicating with their team, other personnel assumed to “know” about the hazard or simply ignored due to the high stress and time constraint nature of the work. In a haze of countless workers, power tools, supplies, heavy machinery, endless equipment, changing materials, and evolving structures, communication to coordinate activities safely is critical. Therefore a lot of emphases has been placed on making communication simple, convenient, timely, and accurate through the use of integrated software solutions. Communication, engagement and reporting are the pillars that navigate working teams on-site to safely close out projects.
- Safety Observation:
Software systems are now making it possible to record mandated Health and Safety observations directly onto handheld devices. Helping to improve the quality of safety data as workers continually upload observations throughout the day making it possible to accurately manage risks on an ongoing basis. The data is then put to further use through built-in artificial intelligence (AI) systems or safety analyses tools whereby unsafe behaviours can be identified, corrected, and fed back into future planning. These systems detect trends, make risk predictions and identify unsafe behaviours as well as possible hazards at ever-increasing speeds. Allowing contractors and risk managers to better identify consistent company problems, such as more incidents happening at a specific time or project juncture. Business intelligence information allows companies to develop more informed and targeted safety procedures, best practices and training programs. Certain systems can predict high-risk situations continually and can issue
safety alerts or evacuation orders to the handheld devices of workers without the need for a verbal grapevine from senior management to frontline employees. These software tools also support continuous improvement and training development because of the increased accuracy of data being fed directly from site workers to analytical tools. Previously safety observations were written down at the end of a working day or week, making the data outdated and prone to error. Insight software now analyses data through embedded business intelligence tools offering charts, formulas, and trends across various job sites to track Health and Safety performance. As processes evolve training of personnel is also updated to incorporate best practices and ensure that a wider net of workers benefits from incremental or major safety adjustments.
- Increased Legal Compliance:
Due to the nature of the industry and ever-increasing project complexity legal requirements can be an administrative nightmare. Manual compliance administration can be time-consuming and drown managers in paperwork.
Multiple parties are included in the value change that impacts internal requirements, compliance with laws and regulations. This causes the audit process to be resource-intensive and challenging due to coordinating across multiple teams and locations. Digital innovation has reshaped this process to make pre-created templates, quality checks, built-in approvals, authentications, and benchmarks to demonstrate performance externally while safely storing evidence for record-keeping.
- Continued Risk Assessment:
Risk management is a central concern for the well-being of any major project especially by preventing delays. Digital software uses analytical tools to predict possible risks and bottleneck problems and can adapt to project needs by assessing physical security, cybersecurity, compliance, material shortages and even suppliers. Having a system that evolves alongside project progress ensures that company management is kept up to date with the real state of affairs to make allowance for swifter reaction times, changes and agile management approaches. Risk assessments are made available on the go, can be reviewed regularly and can require employee sign-offs for training to ensure compliance. As workers become accustomed to reviewing safety information and recording hazards the number of incidents starts to decrease over time.
- Digitalising Safety Processes:
Having digitised processes speeds up time-consuming administrative steps and provides more control measures and rigour to existing safety processes. Historically managers were faced with various bits of paper that needed to be authenticated manually to ensuring only qualified personnel perform hazardous tasks. Today this process can be concluded remotely and require sign-offs, built-in authenticators and checklists to be completed on one centralised system through a handheld device. Control measures can be added to require for example fingerprint authentications. These rigorous digitised processes cause regular inspections, continuous and predictive equipment maintenance, compliance checks and proper personal protective equipment distribution to be in place. Improving traceability with digital signoffs and authentication technology, and ensuring workers have the valid qualifications and approvals
necessary to carry out high-risk tasks. Increased transparency and visibility ensures a rapid more rigorous process and prevents mismanagement of company resources. Managers gain instant access to worker reports, and complete or incomplete checklists for faster and more productive delegation of tasks, adjustments, corrective actions or investigations. This system prevents incidents, near misses and haphazard use of equipment. Resulting in a reduction of lost paperwork, incomplete reports, and unreported hazards while increasing the transparency of Health and Safety activities across the company, contractors, and subcontractors.
Technological innovation has allowed companies to proactively and efficiently manage risks which ultimately reduces the cost of lost labour due to ill-health, increases productivity as well as ensures the safety of those involved. Improving response times to potential injuries could save lives. Digital solutions are created to limit incident exposure which has a positive result on employee morale with the added benefit of potentially decreasing excessive insurance expenditure. Safer construction sites result in more successful sites because of increased productivity which starts a chain reaction of benefits. By analysing and identifying risky behaviour, potential problems and hazardous situations companies are mitigating risk. Utilising the right technology increases employee satisfaction and retention as well as overall project quality, profit margins, and industry reputation.