The Loughborough University report, Improving Occupational Health Risk Management in SMEs: the role of major projects describes how safety has taken precedence over health in construction. The report warns that the problem is particularly challenging among small and medium-sized organisations.
However, it says there is evidence that some good practices have “trickled down” from major projects. The report explores whether a similar process could be achieved with occupational health practices.
The research was carried out on the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, a major construction project involving main contractors down to small, family-run businesses. The researchers looked at the types of barriers to overcome when sharing good practice through the supply chain.
The report concluded that a significant obstacle for smaller companies is a lack of knowledge as individuals make decisions about occupational health based on an incorrect understanding of the law and the risks involved.
One example cited in the report is that, although employers understood that wearing masks helped to control exposure to dust, some workers underestimated the importance of being clean shaven.
Workers also believed that their main exposure to health hazards was as a result of the activities of others, with personal protection equipment being their only recourse.
Other barriers to sharing good practice were cost and with the high turnover of staff on construction sites.
To unblock this information impasse, the report’s authors are calling for more specialists such as OH advisers and occupational hygienists being available on sites to raise standards and educate managers. In-house specialists also need to be encouraged to share their knowledge down the supply chain.
Site managers also need to be more aware of activities of contractors to better minimise worker exposure from trades other than their own.
On costs, occupational health expectations need to be expressed at the tendering stage to ensure realistic pricing with the expectations of health assessments clearly outlined so that companies are motivated and supported to put procedures in place.
The report urges greater consistency across the industry, more training and improved materials for workforce training.
It also calls for better processes for managing occupational health data to ensure records follow a worker between projects and employers and that everyone is operating to the same minimum standard. This could run alongside the current requirement for each worker to have a Construction Skills Certification Scheme card.