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Occupational health needs more positive approach in construction

At last month’s ICE health summit I was struck by how far the construction industry has come in terms of recognising and acknowledging that health is as important as safety. But now is not the time to be complacent – there is still so much to do.

We heard a lot at the summit about the challenges the industry faces. We saw data on the cost of ill health to the industry and wider economy, the still-frightening statistics on levels of musculo-skeletal diseases and occupational cancers, the negative effects of ‘presenteeism’ and how the influencers in the industry have an opportunity to drive a shift in focus.

Throughout the summit there was agreement on the need for behavioural change within organisations. There continues to be a stigma attached to admission of stress and mental health issues with many employees suffering in silence.

Communication of the right policies to employees at the right time and informing them of the help available is crucial to any step-change.

At B&CE we’re taking these challenges very seriously. We are proud to be firmly rooted in the construction industry and have been supporting it for 75 years. We are now looking to give something back in terms of health. We want to make occupational health simpler for construction employers and workers to understand.

I joined last summer with a remit to help drive delivery of a new occupational health scheme for the construction industry. Research by B&CE has revealed several key challenges which must be overcome.

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B&CE has learned that there is a massive lack of understanding of what occupational health is and how it should be operated in the construction industry. Employers look to providers for guidance but providers don’t understand what the construction industry needs and are seen as missing knowledge about the complex risks involved in construction.

The summit further demonstrated a consensus that help is needed with occupational health

Furthermore, with no single set of standards used consistently, employers are interpreting what is needed differently. This causes a lack of coordination in their approach to occupational health management.

Employers want a clear and easy way to comply – with clarity and guidance on what health tests to carry out based on risks and hazards rather than the current job role system.

Not united in our approach

When Patrick Heath-Lay, B&CE’s chief executive, addressed last year’s summit, he highlighted the lack of consistency across the industry. The industry agreed. Yet this remains our primary challenge – everyone is still doing something different. We’re not sharing what we need to share, which leads to increased inefficiencies as everyone implements their own version or interpretation of what is needed.

We’re not united in our approach. We’re also not clear about the scale of that challenge. We don’t know how many people are being made ill through work.

We must not forget that health surveillance is a legal requirement. Health surveillance isn’t always being done, so we’re not picking up the early signs of ill health which are vital to taking a proactive approach. We are also still too focused on fitness for work rather than the effects of hazards at work on health.

What action is needed?

Unfortunately the construction industry tends to see workers as being ‘unfit for work’ until proved otherwise. We want to create a shift in thinking so that workers are seen as fit and healthy and want to stay that way.

We may need to periodically assess whether that has changed but we believe that we should start from that positive perspective.

This is sponsored content provided by B&CE. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of ICE.

Margaret Grahamslaw is Head of Occupational Health & Wellbeing at B&CE, supporting development of an occupational health scheme to simplify health surveillance, planning and access to health information for construction workers.

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