The involvement of occupational hygienists in driving real change in preventing ill-health in construction is crucial, ICE paper finds

BOHS welcomes the findings of an influential paper titled “Raising the bar for occupational health management in construction”. The paper presented by the publishing arm of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE,) which highlights how the Thames Tideway Tunnel project in London – with the crucial involvement of a team of occupational hygienists from Park Health, – is serving as a vital driver for lasting improvements in preventing work-related ill health potentially impacting even difficult-to-reach small to medium sized enterprises in the construction sector. The three-year research project was funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).  

Tideway recognised the need for specialist support in health risk management and mandated the involvement of occupational hygienists which they procured through Park Health and Safety Partnership  

Tideway is an important sponsor of BOHS’ Breathe Freely in Construction campaign. Since its launch in April 2015, the Breathe Freely campaign has educated audiences about the issue of occupational lung disease in the construction and manufacturing industries. Through expert events and a web-based information hub, campaign has offered tangible solutions to control the hazards that affect workers’ respiratory health.  

The paper explains how, if managers are to accept ownership for health risks, they need to be supported by knowledgeable health and safety practitioners, who are in turn supported by expert occupational hygienists, occupational health nurses and other occupational health specialists.  

The authors of the paper recognise the value and importance of increasing access to occupational hygienist support in construction but recognise the challenges, given a national shortfall of occupational hygienists, with similar shortages of occupational health advisers, nurses and doctors across all sectors in the UK to meet industry needs. 

This scarcity of specialists, the paper notes, makes it even more important that managers and health and safety professionals have a sound understanding and competency of recognising health risks and appropriate means to achieve control.  This could be achieved by coaching and shadowing of occupational hygiene professionals 

A range of interventions are proposed in the paper in order to drive improvements in health risk management, which are illustrated by examples from the Thames Tideway Tunnel project. These focus on: 

  • a consistent approach to occupational health management and health surveillance across the construction sector 
  • a commitment to better training, such as the introduction of the BOHS’ course “Certificate in Controlling Health Risks in Construction” (CCHRC) 
  • improved portability of occupational health & hygiene data.  

The authors conclude, “Major projects are critical to raising health management standards, but good practices need to be universally adopted in small to medium sized enterprises to achieve lasting improvement.” 

Commenting on the publication, BOHS President John Dobbie said

As the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection we support every initiative aiming to reduce the burden of preventable diseases caused by exposure to workplace hazards. It is very important to see good practices adopted, as with the example of Tideway. Prevention and control of health risks is crucial in workplaces and companies have to realise the vital role of occupational hygienists.  It is about protecting people and keeping them healthy and safe at work. The Breathe Freely initiative and our freely available resources, have been designed by experts to meet these challenges head on, setting out exactly how to embed high standards in the prevention of respiratory ill health on construction sites.