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June 29, 2015

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The changing demographic of the construction industry

construction-worker-569126_640By 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.

Ageing workforce

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.

.Foreign workers

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

Unreported accidents

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_03636400Mark Paterson, senior risk manager, QBE


What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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John Bartlett
John Bartlett
8 years ago

Mark This is what I find on construction sites: Young English workers do not want to work in construction. Gone are the days of apprenticeships. If there was a minimum level of English for all workers the construction sites in London would come to a grinding halt. Assistive machinery costs money: Sad but true. The reason that the majority of accidents go unreported is if they don’t work they don’t get paid, again sad but true. A whistle blowing policy: it wasn’t that long ago the major players were blacklisting workers. The reality is if construction workers aren’t meeting targets… Read more »