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Construction businesses urged to prioritise health and safety at Limerick conference

THE Health and Safety Authority (HSA) is urging construction businesses to put health “at the top of the agenda on construction sites”.

HSA Inspector Brian Molloy was speaking at the Castletroy Park Hotel as part of Construction Safety Week 2019.

The presentation covered the five main focus areas for this year: mental health and wellbeing in construction, working safely with electricity, height and hazardous substances and vehicle risk and safety in lifting operations.

However, the main issue Brian drew everyone’s attention to is the health problems associated with construction work.

“We have been dealing with the physical hazards primarily, such as falling from heights and machines,” Brian said.

“It’s the long-term health effects of working on construction sites which are going to be the main focus of HSA inspections down the line.”

Such health issues referred to by Brian are those related to the exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS), which plastic composites have a concentration of up to 90% and sandstone, gritstone, quartzite and flint of more than 70%. Exposure to RCS can cause lung cancer and silicosis.

Asbestos can cause asbestosis, related lung cancer and non-fatal conditions such as pleural plaques and pleural thickening. These risks mainly concern those who are working on buildings that were built pre-2000.

If working on such buildings, the person should make sure the refurbishment/demolition survey has been carried out. If any of the building containing asbestos is on site, it must be removed by a contractor.

Exposure to wood dust and welding fumes can lead to asthma and other respiratory problems and diesel engine exhaust fumes can result in lung cancer. Reconstituted stone has a high level of silica and any sanding or grinding leaves a high level of silica in the air.

“Health has always been further down the chain of issues. It is something we need to be pushing the agenda on, we need to make sure employees know about the health issues on site and as Safety Officers, we need to make sure we manage the work and that risk assessments are carried out,” Brian continued.

“With silica and wood dust, if you pull the people away from the issue, there is a good chance of recovery. But, by trying to eliminate these substances, you will get rid of the problem.

“Another big focus is chemicals. When HSA go on site, they will ask to see what chemicals are being used, if there are safety data and risk assessment sheets.

“With employers, they sometimes don’t even know the correct masks for workers to use. It is important the education is there. Employees need to be as educated as possible also.”

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) is undertaking a nationwide series of inspections on construction sites in an effort to reduce the rate of injury and death in the sector. 

There are nearly 150,000 employees in the construction industry in Ireland, employed by 47,000 construction companies. Since 2013, the construction industry has grown by 60,000 people. However, the number of accidents have remained roughly at the same level.

Five people lost their lives in construction-related activity in 2018, and there were 767 non-fatal incidents reported to the authority. So far this year, there have been six reported deaths. 

“The statistics tell a story and it’s an unfortunate story whether its an injury or a fatality,” Brian added.

Overall, Brian said that in Ireland, the industry is definitely improving with awareness of and concern for danger increasing.

“It often comes down to the employers. There are a lot of great contractors out there who put a lot of time and resources into safety and then the employers who don’t and unfortunately those are who we need to target.”  

Executive for the Southern Region of Construction Industry Federation (CIF), Ronan O’Brien, said that this event alone shows the growing concern shown by construction workers for their personal safety.

“When this first started, it was initially the CIF holding events and members would come but we have encouraged now that there be activities and events on sites that focus a bit more on safety for this week,” Ronan said.

“Since we first started the event, the number of people who turn up has nearly doubled which shows the increased concern.”

Technology has had a significantly positive impact on improving safety. Finger recognition for entering the sites and drones for seeing the area overhead are creating an even safer environment.

“Even though there is way more activity out there, it’s a much safer place than it was before,” Ronan continued.

“But, one accident is too many. Nearly every site will have a toolbox stolen but the most important thing is that everyone gets home safely at the end of the day.”

And there can be no discussion had without a mention of the elephant in every room.

“The HSA actually has a big role in regard to Brexit,” Brian explained.

“We have quite a lot to cover – we need to make sure that any products that come on to our market complies with the EU directives.

“Post-Brexit, if companies are importing machinery, you could be an importer – making it available on the EU market for the first time. If you are an importer, you need to make sure the equipment complies with the relevant machinery directives.

“If importing chemicals, companies may also have to take on the responsibility for the registration, authorisation, notification and other essential safety information required.”

Construction Safety Week 2019 is held in conjunction with partners including the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and the Construction Safety Partnership Advisory Committee (CSPAC).

Construction businesses are urged to access BeSMART.ie, a free, online tool by the HSA that allows them to generate their own workplace risk and safety assessments. It is required by law that risk assessments be carried out and a safety statement be compiled for the business.

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