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Construction workers less stressed than most, so why the suicides?

According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), construction industry workers are statistically less than half as likely to suffer from work-related stress, depression or anxiety than the working population as a whole. But they are four times more likely to take their own lives.

Construction statistics in Great Britain, 2023, published by the HSE yesterday, cites Labour Force Survey findings that there are an estimated 16,000 construction workers in Britain suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety – whether a new or long-standing condition. Stress, depression or anxiety attributed to working conditions accounts for 24% of all ill health in the construction sector, the statistics show.

It sounds bad for construction but across the working population as a whole the stress/depression/anxiety rate is 2.1%. In construction it is 0.8% – significantly less than half.

But while construction workers are less likely to suffer from stress/depression/anxiety, they are more likely (than the working population as a whole) to take their own life.

Suicide statistics for England and Wales, published by the Office for National Statistics, show that 507 people working in the construction industry took their own lives in 2021. Construction’s suicide rate in 2021 was 34 per 100,000 in employment. Perhaps stresses induced by the pandemic inflated that number in 2021 but the previous five-year average of 482 still shows that construction workers are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than die in a workplace accident.

Work-related breathing or lung problems are also prevalent in the construction industry. There were an estimated 4,000 workers suffering from a work-related breathing or lung problem (new and long-standing), representing 0.2% of workers in the sector. This rate is nearly double the rate seen across the working population as a whole (0.11%), meaning that, in broad terms, those in construction are nearly twice as likely to lung disease or suffer breathing problems as those not in construction.

As well as being potentially bad for the health, construction is also notoriously hazardous.

The fatal injury rate in construction is 1.72 per 100,000 workers, compared to the all-industry rate of 0.41 (and 34 for suicides, remember).

However, other sectors are far, far worse fatal injury rates.

Agriculture, forestry & fishing has the highest rate of work-related fatal injuries, at 8.6 per 100,000 workers per year. Farming contractors, tree fellers and fisherpeople are five times as likely to be killed at work as construction workers.

The waste sector is dodgy too, with a fatal injury rate of 4.08 per 100,000 workers, more than double that seen in construction.

However, because so many more people work in construction, it is the sector with the most fatalities – 45 in the year to 31st March 2023, compared to 21 in agriculture, forestry & fishing and six in waste.

In total, across all Britain, 135 workers were killed in work-related accidents last year, 40 of whom fell to their death from height.

Prior to the pandemic, the rate of fatal injury to construction workers showed a downward trend, flattening out in more recent years. The data for 2019-22 includes years affected by the pandemic, shown inside the grey shaded column.
Prior to the pandemic, the rate of fatal injury to construction workers showed a downward trend, flattening out in more recent years. The data for 2019-22 includes years affected by the pandemic, shown inside the grey shaded column.

The 45 workplace fatalities in construction last year is in comparison with the an average of 37 fatalities a year over the five years to 31st March 2023. (Comparisons with previous years have been invalidated to a degree by covid lockdowns so the latest HSE statistical bulletin compares the latest year to recent trends.)

There were three fatal injuries to members of the public in 2022/23, in comparison with an average of four a year fatalities over the five-year period to March 2023.

In 2022/23, 51% of the fatal injuries were caused by falls from height; 12% were trapped by something collapsing/overturning; 10% were struck by a moving/falling object; another 10% were struck by a moving vehicle and 6% were electrocuted. These were the top five causes of fatal injuries on British construction sites last year.

Over the three-year period April 2020 to March 2023, 53,000 construction workers a year, on average, sustained non-fatal injuries at work.

The most common causes of non-fatal injuries are manual handling/lifting/carrying and slips/trips, which each accounted for 24% of the total. Falls from height accounted for 12% and struck by moving/falling object for 11%.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) said that cuts to the HSE’s budgets over the years were now having a visible impact.

Since 2010 the HSE’s budget has been cut by 43%, it said, and staffing levels by 35%.

RoSPA policy advisor Karen McDonnell said: “We are concerned that the tremendous progress made in UK workplace safety has stalled, with statistics showing we’re reducing fatal injuries at almost half the rate we were between 1990 and 2010.

“Any loss of life in the workplace is a tragedy, and while Britain is one of the safest countries in the world to work, it’s deeply concerning that people are still having the same accidents that their parents or grandparents had.

“Unfortunately, the Health & Safety Executive has experienced significant budget cuts over the last decade, which could feasibly lead to an inability to deliver advisory and regulatory functions and justice for victims.

“We therefore ask the question, if we can’t stop old accidents happening to new people with the resource we have, how can we expect the HSE to effectively tackle emerging risks, such as the growth of the gig economy, worsening mental health and the move towards net zero?

“We urge the government to address the ticking timebomb of workplace injury and ill-health by raising its investment in the HSE so it can effectively protect lives, livelihoods, and Britain’s businesses. Only then can the UK retain its status as a beacon of health and safety.”

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