Slow killers take most lives in construction, IOSH says

Hazards like dust and diesel fumes present bigger risk than working at height, says Institution of Occupational Safety and Health

PHOTO: Ian Harper, president of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Credit: Supplied

Long-term health hazards such as dust exposure are more lethal than immediate safety risks such as working at height on construction sites, an expert in the field says.

“When we talk about actual statistics in construction, most people think the biggest cause of death is work at height. In reality, it’s dust,” says Ian Harper, president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), a British organisation for health and safety professionals worldwide.

Occupational cancer is a risk in any construction environment, regardless of its location, Harper says. “A staggering amount of people are being subjected to harmful substances and chemicals, and the amount of work that we do there is relatively small.”

Around 8,000 cancer deaths in the UK every year – about 5% of the total – are linked to occupational factors, according to a study by the Imperial College of London.

Among the biggest risks are exposure to silica dust and asbestos, Harper notes. As part of its efforts to combat the problem, the IOSH, which has about 45,000 members globally, is working on a campaign to raise awareness about occupational diseases.

“It’s around every 45 seconds, someone dies of an occupational cancer. That’s a pretty big figure,” Harper said on the side-lines an IOSH event.

Besides dust, fumes from diesel generators are also hazardous, he adds. “Again in construction, we have lots of diesel generators, and they’re running all day, sometimes in small rooms. Those types of things are the main causes of cancer in the construction industry at the moment.”

As health and safety in construction comes increasingly under the spotlight in the region, the industry also has to be mindful of the health aspect of HSE, as previously reported. A key aspect of this is mental health, an issue that Harper says needs more thought.

“It’s quite important because in the construction industry especially, there are lots of big accidents and disasters that are the result of people who are under stress who make poor decisions. Or people who have mental health problems derived from their work activity,” he pointed out.

The issue is receiving attention in the aviation industry, after the recent Germanwings crash, and construction sector also needs to tackle it now, Harper added.

While on-site physical safety risks receive considerable attention from HSE practitioners, understanding mental health problems and their impact on the worksite is more complex, Harper said.

“It’s a big issue and I think organisations do need to understand how it impacts their business. I don’t think we fully understand if it does or it doesn’t at the moment.”


Most Popular

To Top