Assuring health and safety is a key requirement for all construction projects. Avoiding hazards that threaten worker health and safety should be paramount for the client and project team. This unit aims to identify health hazards encountered by workers in the construction sector, to assess the risks these hazards pose and to examine measures for controlling activities in the workplace which have the potential to cause injury and disease. Its focuses on the development of an effective health and safety management system, the application of which will minimise the risk of serious illness and injury among workers in the sector.

Learning objectives

  1. Identify major health hazards in the construction sector.
  2. Understand the importance of risk assessment and hazard control.
  3. Determine the responsibilities of contractors, subcontractors and other workers on a construction site.
  4. Outline the major features of a health and safety management system.
  5. Describe the function of a method statement.


The construction sector is involved in such diverse and essential projects as the building of houses, hospitals, airports, bridges, roads, dams and other vital structures. Construction projects are characterised by multiple workers, manifold operations and changeable environments, and are associated with a high rate of injury and even fatalities. Statistics presented by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK attest to the record the country has in the area of workplace health and safety taken over the longer term. They show that since the introduction of major health and safety legislation, fatal accidents have decreased by over 60%; but despite this achievement, many thousands of working days continue to be lost to injury and ill-health. Construction workers face a higher rate of injury than workers in any other industrial sector, with the possible exception of mining. The main causes of serious injury and fatalities are falls from heights, electrocution and accidents involving power tools. It is essential, therefore, that the causes are identified and carefully analysed and that further codes of practice for safety are put in place in order to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries. There are health problems within the sector, which are often not reported at all or at best are under-reported in official statistics, because these problems manifest only over time. These include harmful elements that may lead to a worsening of the health of a worker over many years, those that can reduce the capacity of a worker to perform well, or those that render a worker's undertaking of the task impossible. Workers often leave the sector due to ill-health and seek easier employment elsewhere, or they suffer ill-health after retirement, with the result that their problems do not have the same impact as more immediately visible fatal injuries and do not receive the same attention in reports.

Sector structure

The nature of construction work suggests that many hazards are not only peculiar to the sector, but also difficult to identify and control. As the sector involves such constructional hazards as heavy machinery, power tools and work from unstable locations such as ladders and scaffolding some distance above ground level, injuries and even fatalities can result. Exposure to many of the materials used on site, such as wood, paint and fibreglass, as well as solvents, glues and explosives, can also constitute a hazard to health. The way in which the sector is organised means that, on a site, several trades may be competing to share the same area. Even if a hazard is initiated by the work of one trade, other workers in another trade may still be exposed to the hazard because of their proximity to it. The site is a continually changing environment, so an area that is ostensibly safe one day will not necessarily be safe the next, as new trades replace others as work progresses and different hazards are introduced. In countries like Australia, the prevention of skin cancer on the construction site for outdoor workers is a major priority, as the country has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world.

Exposure to hazardous substances

Although official statistics do not necessarily reveal all work-related health problems, the underlying causes of ill-health in the construction sector are widely recognised and can be prevented and controlled. A survey undertaken in the UK estimated that over 2.3 million workers considered that their illnesses were either caused by or undermined by their past or current work. Different types of chemicals (typically solvents) are widely used in construction: they are found in paints, glues and varnishes. These chemicals can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. Their ill effects can be short-lived, ranging from headaches to nausea and skin disorders such as dermatitis, or long-term effects that include damage to internal organs (such as the liver and kidneys) and the cardiovascular system. It is imperative that protective clothing and respiratory devices are worn by workers to reduce exposure to these hazards. Synthetic mineral fibres (SMF) such as fibreglass, a material consisting of fine glass fibres, have been widely used as insulation and sound shielding in buildings. Again, the wearing of protective clothing and respirator masks minimises risk to the skin, eyes, nose and throat.

Some studies indicate that SMF are not as hazardous as the now banned asbestos. However, according to studies conducted by the medical research arm of the US Department of Labour, glass fibres are toxic to cells and to damaged DNA, and these could lead to cancer growth. The number of deaths and new cases resulting from asbestos-related diseases remain at a high-level in many countries: the effects that exposure to SMF may have on workers should not be treated lightly and research must continue. Similarly, cement and wood dust can be inhaled, risking workers to such health problems as lung disease and asthma. Some woods like particleboard contain the chemical formaldehyde, so good ventilation is essential for carpenters and machinists working with these particular products, so that their exposure to the chemical is reduced. Good quality dust masks are helpful in minimising the risks of inhalation, but a better alternative would be to have such materials pre-cut away from the site. Bricklayers are especially prone to dermatitis and burns caused by contact with wet cement. The wearing of suitable gloves is essential and the site should be equipped with basins, hot and cold water and drying materials to enable the workers to wash and dry their hands regularly to reduce skin problems.

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome

HAVS is a debilitating condition that damages the blood vessels and nerves of many workers who use pneumatic tools. It is known as Raynaud's disease and leads to a lack of sensitivity in the fingers. Another health hazard associated with the use of hand-held vibrating tools on site is that of noise, which can lead to deafness. The consensus of the medical profession is that, if workers have difficulty communicating verbally when two metres apart, a noise problem exists. It has been suggested that in choosing hand-held equipment, preference be given to those with low vibration and noise emission characteristics. In addition, some thought should be given to colour-labelling tools, from green through amber to red, to indicate the level of vibration expected from each type.

Musculo-skeletal disorders

The amount of work on a site that involves lifting and carrying without the assistance of mechanisation often results in injuries to muscles, joints, tendons and even nerves. Workers are constantly required to assume postures that deviate from the normal, to work in confined spaces, to perform repetitive tasks and to move heavy loads manually. Working on such tasks for long periods results in conditions such as slipped discs, hernias, sciatica and spinal injuries, as well as inflamed tendons and neck and knee problems. To minimise risk, thought should be given to employing mechanical means of delivering heavy materials from place to place on the work site, and to being aware of the weight of loads that are to be manually handled. The consequences of such physically demanding work are decreased efficiency in the workplace, increased susceptibility to on-site accidents, and injuries so debilitating that they will take the worker out of the sector permanently.

Biological hazards

Even in developed countries some biological hazards exist on construction sites. Contact with raw sewage or working in a sewage-contaminated area can expose workers to hepatitis A and infectious bacteria such as giardia.The symptoms of hepatitis A are fever, nausea and abdominal pain. An affected sewage spill area should be evacuated immediately and a vaccine protecting against hepatitis A should be administered to all workers with any chance of exposure to infection. Construction workers on renovation projects may be affected by an infection caused by the presence of bird excrement. For example, dried faeces from pigeons harbour fungi, which can stay alive for months and infect the lungs. The wearing of protective clothing and respiratory equipment in potentially contaminated areas should be mandatory.


The pervading presence of chemicals, dust, heavy manual work, confined spaces and noise, together with a fear of accidents, especially of falling from a height, contribute to worker stress. Even psychological hazards can stem from poor communications between workers on site and poor relationships between workers. Stress results in physical and mental fatigue, decreased efficiency and reduced immunity to disease. Most workers, particularly labourers, have no control over the way in which operations are carried out and this aggravates stress. Whilst it is acknowledged that the major cause of fatal injury in the construction sector is falling from heights, the handling and use of tools, certain substances and practices that can cause dermatitis, damage to internal organs, musculo-skeletal disorders and hearing loss can contribute directly to worker stress.

Developing a health and safety management system

Construction work can involve the erection of new buildings, the maintenance of existing facilities, re-building and even modifications. Construction projects can be in the building, civil engineering or marine engineering fields, and can be large or small in scale. Although the nature of the work can differ from site to site, workplace hazards are prevalent at all of them and worker injury and ill-health are frequent and sometimes severe. As workplace safety is particularly important in regard to construction work, it is important that a planned approach to construction health and safety is taken, so that injuries and disease can be reduced and unanticipated work delays caused by them can be minimised. The development of an effective health and safety management system is not a simple or swift process, but one that requires a sound knowledge of the workplace and its key personnel, of workplace hazards and risks, and of the health and safety management procedures already in place.

Health and safety management systems will, of necessity, vary from workplace to workplace in some aspect, and they should begin with a plan setting out a general policy statement incorporating the relevant objectives. An outline of the organisational arrangements will establish the chain of responsibility in relation to the health and safety on the particular project, from the contractor to subcontractors and other workers. Regardless of their position on a construction project, all on the construction site have some degree of responsibility in relation to health and safety, which, for the most part, is proportionate to their level of control of the operation. Safety rules should, without exception, apply equally to all on site. Major contractors have a responsibility to ensure not only that the workplace is a safe and healthy place, but also that their subcontractors are fully cognisant of the extent of requirements placed on them. These will be dependent upon the range of the work to be undertaken and the size of the workforce. Prior to the commencement of work on a project, ideally given even before tenders are submitted, subcontractors should meet with the principal contractor to discuss the relevant components of the health and safety plan of the project.

An important facet of health and safety management is having appropriate communication between contractors and subcontractors. Only by co-ordinating and communicating with subcontractors can contractors obtain maximum health and safety performance. Regular meetings provide opportunities for issues to be discussed. Management meetings could review incidents, present health and safety statistics, identify training requirements and deliberate over weaknesses in the current management plan. The establishment of committees, especially on larger projects, provides opportunities for representatives from various areas of the project to communicate with those from other sections of the workforce and to discuss health and safety matters. Also of communication value are informal meetings. These involve just a few people, are of short duration and occur on a weekly or fortnightly basis.

Specific elements of an efficient health and safety management system are hazard identification and assessment. Even prior to the starting date of a project, the explicit hazards associated with the work to be undertaken on the site should be identified, and the risks that they represent should be assessed. Those of high risk include fatalities, severe injuries and permanent disability. Injuries or illnesses that cause temporary disability are classed as medium risk, while others are rated as being low risk. The levels of risk associated with hazardous substances are dependent on the types of substance and the way they are used, while the risks associated with vibration and noise depend on the levels of exposure. Inspections, investigations and incident reporting should be carried out on a thorough and regular basis.

The implementation of appropriate hazard control measures forms an important part of any health and safety management system. Although the majority of injuries and illnesses in the construction sector are predictable and avoidable, and awareness of risks is widespread, few truly successful prevention systems are actually in place and their absence may be attributed to the costs associated with prevention. The first step should be to eliminate the hazard if possible, or to substitute an alternative that is less hazardous. Since inhalation of asbestos particles was recognised as causing lethal inflammation of the lungs, the use of this building material has been banned in just about every country. Attention should be given to providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for those exposed to substances that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Unfortunately, on some construction projects, only lip service is paid to the provision of such equipment, even though respiratory protection standards exist within the sector. Cloth and paper dust masks as used on many sites do not, for instance, provide the comprehensive protection afforded by the more costly filtering respirator masks. Such health and safety requirements should be mandatory and of the highest quality. When considering ergonomic hazards that construction workers face, a health and safety management system should take certain factors into account. If physically demanding tasks, manual handling, productivity demands and long hours cause or aggravate health problems in workers, consideration should be given to the mechanisation of the tasks.

A means of describing the hazard control measures undertaken after identification and assessment is a method statement. This is a written account, which can be used by the main or managing contractor to check that the risks have been evaluated, that control arrangements have been specified and that the statement is consistent with both the project health and safety plan and the statements written by other contractors. A means of carrying out an evaluation and producing a method statement begins with consideration of the activity and identifying the hazards to be avoided if this can be practicably done. The next step is to assess any remaining hazards and then check the regulations or the code of practice for any precautions mentioned therein or any arrangements specified. If they are not found, it is still necessary to identify precautions that should be undertaken. If they are found, then an entry should be made in the method statement. The next step is to implement those management and control procedures that have been agreed upon and continue to monitor the situation.

Instruction and training are essential elements of a cogent health and safety management system. All workers must be trained in the safe performance of their tasks, and areas in which specific training should be given include the use and care of protective clothing, evacuation procedures, the use of portable fire extinguishers and the location of first-aid facilities. Of equal importance is the monitoring of health and safety performance. This can be achieved by way of completing workplace inspections, by investigating accidents, by compiling injury and ill-health statistics and by keeping records such as chemical hazard registers, training records, emergency procedures and incident reports.


The construction sector is recognised as not only one of the most dangerous, but also one that trails other industrial sectors in quality and productivity initiatives. The hazardous conditions inherent in its workplaces result in high rates of injury and disease, but a planned approach to health and safety management would help to reduce not only injury and disease, but also the costly delays that result from them. An effective health and safety management plan will identify, assess and control workplace hazards and risks, ensure active participation by all in relation to health and safety matters, set health and safety standards and furnish information and training at all levels, so that all in the workplace can meet their responsibilities without exposure to risk and hazards.


  1. Identify the three most hazardous substances you must handle in your working environment. Are there ways of reducing the threat these substances pose to you and your colleagues?
  2. What are the three most dangerous or hazardous activities performed within your working environment? What safety precautions are in place to reduce the risk of injury in your workplace?
  3. Have there been any serious incidents on your construction sites in the last two years? Are there strict procedures in place for dealing with and documenting such occasions?
  4. Does your company monitor workers for signs of stress, HAVS or musculo-skeletal disorders? If so, how does it deal with the results?
  5. Are your workers aware of the risks involved in the sector as well as methods for preventing ill-health?

References and bibliography

Fellows, R, Langford, D., Newcombe, R. and Urry, S (2002) Construction Management in Practice. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Goetsch, D. (2003) Construction Safety and Health. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gould, F. and Joyce, N. (2008) Construction Project Management, 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hughes, P. (2011)  Introduction to Health and Safety at Work, 5th edition. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Nunnally, S.W. (2010) Construction: Method and Management, 8th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

We use cookies on this website to improve user experience and the services we provide. This use includes collecting anonymous visitor statistics. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our Privacy Policy.

I accept cookies from this site

EU Cookie Directive information