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Manchester University - Skills-Knowledge-Attitude-Training-Experience (SKATE) in ‘Designing for Occupational Health of Construction Workers’

There’s growing recognition that design decisions have a big influence on health hazards in construction, which can lead to work-related or work-exacerbated conditions like hearing loss and respiratory illnesses.

The research team comprising academics from The University of Manchester (lead organisation), Loughborough University and University of the West of England explored the constituents of ‘Design for Health’ SKATE of individual designers and project teams. Given the diverse nature of the construction sector, it was noted that establishing SKATE expectations for ‘Design for Health’ is a complex task. Even in the area of Design for Safety, precise SKATE requirements are still being debated. This research sets out to help designers and project teams make informed decisions regarding appropriate SKATE expectations.

Design decisions influence health hazards in construction

There’s growing recognition that design decisions have a significant influence on health hazards in construction, which can lead to work-related or work-exacerbated conditions like hearing loss and respiratory illnesses.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) requires that those designing “should eliminate foreseeable health and safety risks to anyone affected by the work (if possible) and take steps to reduce or control risks that cannot be eliminated.”1

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (CDM 2015), an important instrument for addressing health and safety hazards in design, requires those working on projects to have relevant skills, knowledge and experience to enable them to design for health. Also, clients recognise the importance of designers’ abilities in knowing how and why to incorporate healthier products and processes into projects. However, to date, the industry struggles with the constituents of the attributes that are essential for designers to be able to design to protect the occupational safety and health of workers. This is particularly the case in respect of ‘Design for Health’.

The Design for Health SKATE research found that designing for occupational health raises the same challenges that still exist in designing for safety – but much worse! There’s a need to move towards ‘managing health like safety’. It appears that clients, designers, contractors and other stakeholders, even the experienced ones, don’t always fully understand occupational health. This could put Design for Health at a disadvantage.

The SKATE acronym was useful when undertaking the research as it helped focus people on specific attributes and to think deeper about requirements. Still, understanding what attributes designers need to Design for Health isn’t the only issue.

Large construction projects should share their learnings

The study also indicates that there’s a wealth of design knowledge in parts of the construction industry, but how much is captured in lessons learned and passed on to others is unclear. Knowledge gained from projects should be captured by the industry and shared as ‘lessons learnt’ for all to use in future projects. Clearly, there are challenges due to the varied nature of the industry (sole trader to large organisations), fragmentation and the geographical spread of designers’ work. Even in one organisation, lessons learned may reside in different locations. This captured knowledge would aid designers in meeting the general principles of prevention and what’s seen as ‘reasonable’, by accounting for current industry knowledge and practice. Resolving this challenge will bring financial benefits, aid increased Design for Health knowledge and improvements to the health of construction workers and end users.

Health is as important as safety

One recommendation is that organisations need to highlight that health is just as important as safety – and not an ‘optional extra’. There’s much less information and guidance on Designing for Health compared to Designing for Safety. It’s also easier to understand safety as the consequences are more immediate, however, there needs to be a greater focus on health and its effects. Currently, there’s industry-wide emphasis on mental health which, unintentionally, may reduce focus on other important occupational health challenges.

The research was supported by the Design for Health Task Group (DfHTG) – part of the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG).

1HSE, 2019. Designers: roles and responsibilities. Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015)