Inevitably, for many people, their current work situation is putting both themselves and their organisation under significant pressure.
It’s worth remembering however, that even before the pandemic, recent years have seen depression, anxiety and work-related stress in general, increase.
This may have been compounded and exacerbated over the last 18 months to create new mental and physical challenges as we try to move forward. For some, the coronavirus pandemic could have changed the way they work, permanently.
Work-related ill-health has long been an issue in the construction industry. By nature, the pressured, challenging environment is fertile ground for stress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, the danger and physicality of the job leaves workers more vulnerable to accidents and injury that make work difficult or even leave them unable to return at all.
Obviously, the legal duty of employers involves carrying out, and acting upon, risk assessments to protect workers from harm at work, and the earlier they do this the more effectively problems can be addressed. Thus, their impact is lessened – which should benefit both the individuals and the business as a whole.
So, what should the construction industry be focusing on in the post-Covid world?
Clearly, as anxiety, stress and depression are a large cause of work-related ill-health, stress management and support will continue to be crucial and the onus will be on organisations to recognise this and have policies in place to help manage, reduce, or prevent stress in the workplace.
If, as a result of the pandemic (working remotely, social distancing, etc.), the parameters of a previous risk-assessment have changed, then it needs to be updated in light of the new circumstances to make sure that it addresses, and is suitable for, requirements both project-specific and company-wide.
Fundamentally, organisations need to create a structure whereby they can have open and honest conversations about mental health built on a platform of trust and support. In the construction environment, these conversations have the potential to be awkward and difficult as there is still stigma attached, but structure and perseverance is important.
Physical injury is also a risk factor in construction as the inevitable carrying and lifting has the potential for increasing musculoskeletal problems. For many, pain and discomfort that has developed over time or as a result of a specific incident become part and parcel of the job. But simple mitigations such as plentiful, adequate lifting equipment, smaller loads, and even something as simple as closer deliveries of materials to the point of use can all help.
In terms of noise damage, another risk factor, assessing who is at risk, what their likely exposures are and where the exposure is taking place is a starting place for possible prevention, control and training. Likewise, as construction sites are high risk areas for lung damage due to the dust, vapours and gases generated and used, the risks need to be managed effectively. In the UK last year, 12 thousand deaths were caused by lung diseases thought to have a direct link to previous work exposure (occupational lung diseases often have a long latency) in various sectors, so protection is clearly a high priority.
Assessing previous and identifying and assessing new risk factors is the initial step to updating risk assessments.
Ongoing supervision of controls and methods, maintenance of equipment, and monitoring through health surveillance is appropriate for many construction risks. If these are in place, timely reviews of the effectiveness of current procedures and any necessary subsequent action for improvement can be taken.