GUEST ARTICLE: Three Steps for Managing Respiratory Risks on Construction Sites

  • 15 Dec 2023

ConstructionEarly findings from the HSE’s Dust Kills campaign show construction workers are being exposed to respiratory risks on site. Nicola Dawn, a partner in the insurance team at Forbes Solicitors, looks at the steps contractors can take to reduce risks and improve best practice…

The Dust Kills campaign

In recent weeks, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) published its first findings about how dust exposure is being managed and controlled on construction sites across Britain.

More than 1,000 site inspections took place between May and July this year and it’s worth noting that the regulator for health and safety found examples of good practice on sites, where steps are being taken to protect workers against the health impacts of dust. However, inspections also found poor practice, where no dust controls are being considered, meaning there’s a risk of dust exposure that can cause diseases such as lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma.

What the law says

Construction companies have a duty to protect worker health and safety as far as reasonably practicable. This is required as part of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which places general duties on employers to ensure that people are not exposed to unnecessary risks. There’s an obligation for employers to provide a safe system of work including equipment, and to carry out risk assessments and keep workers informed about potential hazards.

Thinking more specifically about respiratory risks, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations 2002 require an employer to protect against the risks from hazardous construction dusts. Breaching legislation can lead to a notice of improvement from the HSE, or a prohibition notice, which requires designated work activities to stop.

Non-compliance can also result in financial penalties, with no cap on the value of fines for issues that endanger human life. Breaches may also be treated as a criminal offence, with liable parties facing possible prison sentences. Furthermore, companies may find themselves facing civil claims from workers suffering from occupational diseases.

Construction companies can take simple steps to effectively reduce these risks and better protect worker health and safety in dusty environments.

1) Embrace risk assessments

Risk assessments shouldn’t be viewed as red tape or restrictions that get in the way of day-to-day activities. Instead, they should be proactively approached as a process that can help improve overall working conditions, performance, and productivity. Protecting worker health and safety can help employees to feel more confident and comfortable in what they are doing.

The HSE advise that employers should assess the risks, control the risks, and review the controls. Taking these steps will help to identify straightforward practices that minimise dust exposure on construction sites. For example, using less powerful tools or a different work method, wearing

Respiratory Protective Equipment (RPE), utilising dust suppression and ventilation systems or rotating workers involved in dusty tasks.

2) Create a dust management plan

Use the outcomes from a risk assessment to create a practical plan of action that will reduce respiratory risks. A formalised dust management plan can help promote best practice in terms of health and safety standards and demonstrate that an employer is taking all reasonable steps to safeguard workers.

Once a plan is in place, it must be shared with workers. Training may be required to effectively implement the plan and to show employees fully understand their roles and responsibilities in controlling the risks of dust exposure. The plan can provide a framework and checklist for everyone on site to ensure they are playing their part in reducing exposure to dust.

3) Regularly review working practices

Risk assessments and dust management plans tend to be only effective if they are managed and reviewed on a regular basis. Employers are best-placed scheduling regular inspections of working practices to check health and safety processes are being followed.

Walking around sites and conversations with workers will show if RPE is being worn, extraction and suppression equipment being used and if indoor spaces are being properly ventilated during dusty activities. If such steps aren’t being followed, action can be taken to understand what the blockers are and what needs to be done to overcome any issues. It can also provide an opportunity for employers to remind workers of their responsibilities. Although employers have a duty to make construction sites as safe as practically possible, Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act says that every employee whilst at work must take reasonable care for their health and safety, as well as the health and safety of others who may be affected by their acts and omissions at work.

The HSE’s Dust Kills campaign provides a timely reminder for construction companies to effectively check if they have dust management plans in place and that on-site activities aren’t leading to needless respiratory risks.

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