Ian Whittles, an HSE construction inspector, reveals the cultural challenges in the sector, the drive behind the Work Right campaign and the musculoskeletal benefits it hopes to achieve.
In the world of construction, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are an age-old problem. But tackling them is gaining fresh focus – particularly amid estimates that they cost construction employers £646m per year (ARMA, 2019). In September last year, the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched its Work Right Construction campaign, which saw it carry out 1000 inspections in October and November to check how workers were moving heavy or bulky materials.
Ian Whittles (pictured, above), an HSE inspector in the construction division in Bristol, is among those on the campaign trail. ‘This first year [of the campaign] was spent trying to raise awareness around manual handling and MSDs generally so we can start embedding the fact that, no, it isn’t acceptable. This is a proper risk that is going to be with you for life,’ he says.
‘We’ve had a lot of success with the Dust Kills campaign and that has improved enormously. You can definitely see an understanding and an improvement. So with Work Right, we are trying to say that this is a serious problem, so don’t ignore it.’
The HSE estimates that around 40,000 construction workers suffer injuries to their muscles, bones, joints and nerves (HSE, 2022). ‘It is historically very unreported, unfortunately,’ Ian adds. ‘We know people have ongoing issues. Over half of ill health cases in construction are down to MSDs [HSE, 2022]. There are so many people you meet who are complaining about their backs – they’ve been lifting poorly for years.’
Window of opportunity
Early intervention is necessary to reduce and prevent MSDs, says Ian. ‘It needs to be thought about long before it gets to site.’ With a long history of inspecting and advising on window installation, he is used to seeing the impact a lack of planning can have. ‘There’s an awful lot of carrying things around manually when it could be sequenced so much better. A prime example is where you have heavy pre-glazed units and people think: “I’ll put two or three people on it.” Well, you can’t physically get them around it. But if they’d planned for it, they could either mechanise it or have it dismantled by design and then it’s in sections. But you’re often faced with an immediate reaction of “Well, I’m here now.”’
It leads to safety risks as well as health risks, Ian adds. ‘With glazing you’re not always trying to lift it – you’re usually supporting it – so if it slips, very large units can land on you. So it’s a safety issue. But the current campaign is predominantly about health because of the repetition, when there are simple aids that workers could use.’
A lack of collaboration and foresight at the design stage is one of two key issues in tackling MSDs on construction sites. ‘We need pre-construction planning and dealing with the designers, influencing them where we can and tracking back – challenging large weights of windows, block weights, plasterboard, steel – and making sure they’re thinking about how to install this stuff,’ he says.
On-site there are cultural issues at play too. ‘It’s a very male-dominated industry, whereby the workers will often fall back to the “old-school” way of trying to lift things, because that’s the way it’s always been done, when there’s really no need. It’s trying to change that culture and show it isn’t acceptable to try to lug around big bags of cement.’
There are also barriers to assessing MSD risks effectively. ‘You never quite know what you’re walking into,’ Ian says. ‘You’re there at different stages of the project, so sometimes you’re faced with a situation in which poor design means something has been missed, and you’re having to deal with the immediate situation on-site.’
The use of manual handling aids has the potential to make a huge difference, Ian says. ‘We’re getting a lot of positive responses to some of the simple handling aids that we’re promoting, such as a little inflatable pump-up door lift – it’s genius, it costs almost pennies, and it supports the door so while you’re hanging it you can just fix it in place.’
But who’s responsible for adopting and normalising risk-reducing measures? It’s a two-way street, Ian suggests. ‘The self-employed subcontractors need to look after themselves, but the site manager needs to be requesting the appropriate RAMS [risk assessments and method statements] systems and reading them, not just filing them, then monitoring to make sure the contractors are following their own systems. There are perfectly good solutions to the obvious risks, and any decent site manager knows that.’
Ian advises OSH professionals in the construction industry that the best way to help reduce the occurrence of MSDs is to make use of the MAC [manual handling assessment chart] tool – now an interactive online platform – to look for red flags. ‘You’ve got a red, amber and green system, so it puts it in a simple way for OSH professionals to target the risk areas of the operation,’ he says.
‘MSDs aren’t just about box-lifting. In construction especially, you’ve got weights, posture, ergonomics, carrying distance, restrictions, how you hold it and centre of gravity,’ Ian adds. ‘Look at some of the manual handling RAMS when you see them on-site and challenge them. Because an awful lot say nobody will lift more than 25kg – and that isn’t a sufficient assessment. It needs to be much wider and explore all the factors.’
The Work Right campaign should equip the sector to make positive changes.
ARMA. (2019) Musculoskeletal conditions in the construction industry (accessed 20 December 2022).
HSE. (2022) Construction statistics in Great Britain, 2022 (accessed 4 January 2023).