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 overtaken musculoskeletal disorders as the most reported workplace health issue in the sector.
The conference, which took place on Wednesday 7 November, featured a range of industry specialists discussing some of the big issues the construction industry faces in ensuring its workforce is kept safe from injury and ill health. Recent figures published by the HSE put this into perspective, revealing that a total of 144 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2017/18, with 38 deaths in the construction industry accounting for the greatest number of occupational fatalities from an individual sector.
Dr Michael Cash, Chair of the IOSH Construction Group, set the stage for an engaging discussion attended by more than 50 delegates from across the sector, where a number of key issues were raised:
1. Mental health issues affect a significant number of workers in the construction industry
Kevin Fear, H&S Strategy Lead from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), described poor mental health in the construction industry as ‘the silent epidemic’, showing how work-related stress, depression and anxiety have overtaken musculoskeletal disorders as the most reported workplace health issue in the sector. Kevin explained how the construction industry has more suicides than any other profession, with 454 construction workers taking their own lives in 2016.
Greater mental health support for construction workers was identified as a priority area. One delegate mentioned how their company had managed to reduce stress-related work absences by up to 93% through efforts to safeguard workers, including offering counselling services, stress questionnaires and providing tailored support for ‘at risk’ employees. This example showed how changes to organisations can make real differences to the mental health and wellbeing of employees.
Kevin also spoke of the importance of people making sure they look after their own mental health, including talking about feelings, taking breaks, staying active and being empowered to ask for help.
2. Lung health is top of the agenda
One of the key priority areas to tackle in workplaces includes mitigating occupational lung disease. 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. Delegates discussed how dust particles harmful to our lungs can become airborne after active construction work and dry sweeping but can remain in the environment long after active work has been completed.
The 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. A similar number of non-mesothelioma lung cancer deaths can also be linked to past exposures to asbestos.