Poor Mental Health in Construction Industry Labelled ‘the Silent Epidemic’

Poor mental health in the construction industry has been described as ‘the silent epidemic’ during a speech at IOSH’s first annual Construction Conference, highlighting how work-related stress, depression and anxiety have taken over the construction industry.

The conference, which took place on Wednesday 7 November, 2018, featured a range of industry specialists discussing some of the big issues in construction.

This year’s HSE figures show 144 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2017/18, with 38 deaths in construction – more than any other sector.

Dr Michael Cash, Chair of the IOSH Construction Group, set the stage where a number of key issues were raised:

Mental health issues in the construction industry

Kevin Fear, CITB’s H&S Strategy Lead, explained how construction has more suicides than any other occupation, with 454 construction workers taking their own lives in 2016. Greater mental health support for construction workers was identified as a priority.

Lung health

HSE data shows that 12,000 lung disease deaths each year are estimated to be linked to past exposures at work. For every worker killed on site, approximately 100 die from ill health due to past exposures.

HSE data also shows that 56% of all occupational cancers in the UK, were in the construction industry. Mesothelioma, a cancer predominantly affecting the lungs and caused by exposure to asbestos, took the lives of 2,595 people in 2016.

Silicosis is an ancient disease

Chartered Occupational Hygienist Kelvin Williams spoke about long-standing issues of carcinogenic exposure, highlighting that silicosis is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of respirable crystalline silica dust. Silica is a mineral found in certain types of stone, rock, sand and clay and can be inhaled by people working with these materials. Research suggests that in Britain nearly 800 people die a year from lung cancer caused by breathing in silica dust at work.

Construction work does not need to be dangerous

During his speech, Chris Lucas, HSE Principal Inspector, commented: “It is both possible and practical to carry out construction work without causing ill health.” Chris spoke about how, with proper checks and new technologies designed to make work safer, there is no reason why any worker in the construction industry needs to be put at risk.

Presenteeism costs employers more than absenteeism

Dr Wendy Jones, a Senior Researcher at Loughborough University, said occupational ill-health in construction – excluding cancers – costs employers £848 million annually, with primary causes including asbestosis, stress, manual handling issues and physical demands.

She explained that the cost of presenteeism is two and a half times that of absenteeism. Presenteeism is when someone with ill health goes into work, which can result in loss of productivity, poor health, exhaustion and workplace health epidemics.

The panel of speakers agreed that employers have a moral and ethical responsibility to help employees work to their full potential by offering support where necessary and understanding that people’s personal lives and experiences can affect performance.

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