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Loughborough University - Improving occupational health risk management in SMEs: the role of major projects

Loughborough’s research focused on health risk management practices of small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) involved in the supply chain for a £250 million construction project.

Improving occupational health risk management in SMEs: the role of major projects

Loughborough University has an excellent record of producing impactful, construction-based research – with over 20 years’ experience in the field. They understand how knowledge is shared across the industry to drive improvements.

This 2016 study, funded by B&CE’s Charitable Trust, saw their research team work with Interserve Construction Limited while they completed a £250 million construction of the world-leading Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC).

Research focused on health risk management practices of small to medium sized businesses (SMEs) involved in the project supply chain. For example, in 2015 there were 35 fatalities as a result of construction accidents across the UK, but an estimated 3700 deaths from cancers* (most related to asbestos and silica exposure). So, the team were keen to find out if working on major projects changed SME workers’ long-term behaviour around health risks.

The desired outcomes were to:

  • Encourage a more targeted way of working to improve the health of construction workers in SME businesses
  • Enhance construction companies’ understanding of health and safety responsibilities
  • Produce practical industry guidance on how major projects can best influence the health-related practices of those working for smaller companies
  • Promote outcomes through key construction networks – provide a legacy for the wider industry and help raise standards.

Health risks were covered too – including:

  • Cancers
  • Respiratory disorders and dermatitis
  • Physical health such as musculoskeletal disorders, hand-arm vibration and noise-induced hearing loss.

And a cross-section of the supply chain as follows:

  • Managers, directors, supervisors, and operational workers
  • Self-employed and micro companies (less than 10 workers)
  • Small employers (up to 50 workers)
  • Medium sized companies (up to 250 workers)
  • Workers from all trades, different age groups, different length of experience and all nationalities.

The research team engaged with workers during the project lifecycle – from the start to finish, and achieved these outcomes:

  • New learned behaviours on the management of dust and manual handling best practices
  • The use of health assessments – some had never done these and others were not doing enough. Many found out more about risk assessing and supporting those with health conditions. This was a key learning for the SME market
  • A major barrier to occupational health best practice was workers’ lack of knowledge, especially on health surveillance – for example, wearing a mask to prevent dust exposure but underestimating the importance of being clean-shaven
  • Ensure the high standards of occupational health processes are cascaded up and down supply chains.

The 39-page report was shared with key stakeholders in the industry to promote these best practices.

*From HSE. Gov statistics.