The changing demographic of the construction industry
By Mark Paterson, senior risk manager, QBE
Construction was one of the hardest hit sectors in the downturn. Post-recession however, companies are struggling to keep up with the speed of recovery. The industry appears to have permanently lost many of those who were made unemployed during the recession and is having to look to alternative sources for labour.
The demographic of the construction site is changing as a result. There are considerably more older workers and a larger proportion of foreign labourers. This presents its own set of risks and means that companies, and health & safety practitioners in particular, must review policies and procedures to ensure they remain relevant.
According to 2013 ONS figures, 35,000 construction workers are aged 55 and over. Construction work can be very physically demanding. Heavy workloads combined with the normal effects of ageing can lead to premature physical decline and ill health. There does not necessarily have to be a trade off between skills and experience and physical fitness however.
What companies can do:
- Put older workers on more skilled, but less physically demanding work
- Capitalise on experience – place older workers in a position where they can train younger workers in more complex tasks, or assign them a safety role.
- Consider where assistive machinery can be used to ease the burden of heavy lifting
- Review pay structure – many older workers would benefit from a ‘day rate’ that rewards quality rather than speed.
Construction has long relied on foreign workers to fill gaps in the labour market. With a lack of young UK nationals being trained to replace older retiring workers, the sector is increasingly reliant on both skilled and unskilled workers from overseas. European enlargement has made a pool of highly skilled and unskilled workers available to British firms.
Employing foreign workers can present its own challenges, notable among them is the language barrier. Furthermore, many foreign workers do not fully understand UK safety standards, procedures and instructions. This is compounded by the fact that up to 30% have not worked in construction prior to arriving in the UK. So what can firms do?
- Audit site workers and identify English language capability
- Decide whether or not to require a minimum level of English for all workers
- Where not, translate appropriate H&S guides into the relevant languages. Alternatively, a more cost effective approach would be to use easily recognisable images to explain safety requirements.
- Introduce a buddy- scheme which partners foreign workers with skilled British nationals
The health and safety of all workers on site is being compromised by unreported accidents and incidents. Construction unions estimate that 80% of workplace accidents go unreported and only 9 per cent of minor accidents get reported.
What employers can do:
- Develop and promote a whistle blowing policy to enable and encourage employees to raise concerns freely and without fear of recrimination
- Ensure that the policy is understood by all workers and enforced by management
- Promote the positive outcomes of whistle blowing to reinforce the message to workers that this is something the company encourages.
For more information on health and safety challenges for the Construction sector, download QBE’s Protecting Employees on site guide.
Mark Paterson, senior risk manager, QBE
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