The construction industry plays a vital role in building infrastructure and shaping our communities. However, it is also one of the most hazardous industries for workers. Data shows construction sites see 20.2 fatalities per 100,000 workers each year. With 1.2 million construction workers on the job every day, a startling one out of every five worker deaths are in construction in Canada. From towering structures to intricate engineering, construction sites are riddled with potential dangers.
In this blog, we will discuss some of the top health and safety hazards in construction, covering chemical, ergonomic, psychological, environmental and biological hazards and drawing on data from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWBC) and the U.S. We’ll also provide practical tips on implementing controls to protect the health and well-being of workers and demonstrate due diligence.
The controls we will focus on include:
If a hazard cannot be eliminated from the workplace or substituted for a less dangerous alternative, then engineering controls are the next most effective option. They require physical changes to the workplace. This is done by engineering hazards out of the workplace through controlling the hazard at the source.
Unlike engineering controls that deal with the workplace environment, administrative controls change the way work itself is conducted, and the behaviour of employees conducting the work.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Controls
Personal protective equipment (PPE) includes protective clothing or equipment specifically designed to protect the wearer’s body from exposure to hazardous products such as chemicals, biohazards, and airborne particulate matter.
Top Construction Health and Safety Hazards and Controls
Physical Hazards: A Slippery Slope
A physical hazard is an agent, factor or circumstance that can cause harm with or without contact, such as a broken ladder or scaffold, an unguarded edge, a slippery floor, or poorly maintained fall protection equipment components. According to AWBC data, falls are the leading cause of fatalities and lost time claims in construction, accounting for 24% of claims in 2020 and 22% in 2021.
💡 Physical Hazard Controls
Engineering controls: Engineering controls involve physical changes to the workplace to mitigate fall hazards. This can be achieved through various techniques, such as installing guardrails, safety nets, or using aerial lifts to provide a safer working environment at elevated heights.
Administrative controls: A proper fall protection program should be in place to include and prescribe the requirements for inspections and fall protection training – which should include training in the care, use and maintenance of fall protection systems, equipment and components.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) controls: Ensure workers wear appropriate fall protection equipment including helmets, harnesses, and fall arrest systems.
Chemical Hazards: Handling Toxic Realities
Exposure to harmful substances is a significant hazard in construction. In 2021, AWBC data found this hazard contributed to 9% of claims, a considerable jump from 3% in 2020.
There is perhaps a no better known or deadlier hazardous material at construction sites than asbestos.
Asbestos was commonly used in construction for its fire-resistant properties, making it present in roofing, thermal and electrical insulation, cement pipe and sheets, friction materials (such as automobile brakes), and other products. It is associated with various cancers, including mesothelioma, and was banned by the Government of Canada in 2018.
Approximately 235,000 Canadians are exposed to asbestos at work, most notably in the construction sector. It’s also important to note that symptoms can take 20 to 30 years to present from the time of exposure. Work-related asbestos exposure resulted in approximately $2.35 billion in costs for newly diagnosed lung cancer and mesothelioma cases in 2011.
💡 Chemical Hazard Controls
Engineering Controls: Examples of engineering controls that combat chemical hazards include implementing ventilation systems and automated chemical handling equipment. Using local exhaust ventilation (LEV), for instance, can effectively remove some harmful fumes at the source, enhancing the workplace environment.
Administrative Controls: Develop clear procedures for chemical handling, storage, and disposal, and implement appropriate safety training (popular chemical hazard construction safety courses include Gas Detection training and Hydrogen Sulfide Awareness training).
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Controls: Ensure workers have access to appropriate PPE, such as supplied air or self-contained breathing apparatus when workers may be exposed to very hazardous airborne particulates and gases, respirators for minor cases where there are less hazardous airborne particulates such as dust or viruses and chemical-resistant clothing.
Ergonomic Hazards: The Strain of the Trade
Ergonomic hazards encompass physical conditions that can take a toll on the musculoskeletal system, leading to strains, injuries, aches, and pains. Two of the most common ergonomic hazards are overexertion and repetitive motion injuries.
Overexertion occurs when construction workers strain their bodies by lifting heavy objects, performing repetitive tasks, or working in awkward postures. According to AWBC, this hazard contributed to 15% of claims in 2020 and 14% in 2021.
This was followed by repetitive motion injuries, which affected 21% of workers in 2020 and 20% in 2021. These injuries often result from repetitive tasks, such as hammering or operating vibrating machinery, leading to musculoskeletal issues.
💡 Ergonomic Hazard Controls
Common ergonomic hazard controls might include:
- Modifying existing equipment and work areas
- Making changes in work practices / identifying jobs and tasks for automation
- Purchasing new tools or assistive devices
Let’s consider these controls against the hazard of operating vibrating machinery:
- Modify existing equipment and work areas to reduce vibration exposure by employing isolation systems and vibration-absorbing materials
- Consider automation or reduce the duration of exposure to vibrating machinery by implementing job rotation and providing frequent breaks for the operator
- Invest in vibration-dampening tools or devices that allow for remote control
A physical demands analysis (PDA) can be done for each job to evaluate what the risks are in order to choose effective controls to eliminate or reduce injury.
Biological Hazards: Battling Unseen Foes
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry has been prompted to reconsider its approach to health and safety. During flu season in particular, even in primarily outdoor work environments, viruses (and other diseases and illness) can spread quickly. Here are controls to minimize business interruption.
💡 Biological Hazard Controls
Engineering Controls: Optimize outdoor workspace layouts to facilitate social distancing among workers. Provide outdoor handwashing stations, and ensure adequate ventilation in enclosed workspaces, such as portable cabins or site trailers.
Administrative Controls: Develop comprehensive pandemic response plans tailored to outdoor construction sites. These plans should encompass safe work practices, health monitoring, staggered / reduced work shifts, and stringent hygiene protocols. Remote work options for administrative staff can also be encouraged.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Controls: Workers should have appropriate PPE, such as face masks, face shields, and hand sanitizers.
Psychological Hazards: The Mind Matters
An honest and entertaining film about workplace mental health suitable for a Toolbox Talk on every construction site – from BCCSA.
Construction safety isn’t just about physical toil; work can also take a toll on the mental well-being of workers. While data may be limited for Canada, evidence from the U.S. demonstrates the extent of the problem. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, construction workers have a 65 percent higher suicide rate than workers in all other sectors.
MJ MacDonald, CEO of Construction Safety Nova Scotia (CSNS), emphasizes the need for change in the industry. “We believe that the data we get out of the US and other places is indicative of the situation here in Canada, and as such, it paints a bleak picture of the rate of suicides and mental illness in the sector.”
High-stress environments, physically demanding work, job insecurity and seasonal work patterns, as well as accessibility of substances continue to drive psychological hazards in construction.
Mike McKenna, British Columbia Construction Safety Association (BCCSA) executive director, said the biggest challenge is to get the industry to change. “Construction culture needs to change; that’s the heart of the matter. Most workers feel they have no control over their work lives. There’s no certainty. They finish one job and then wait to start the next.”
💡 Psychological Hazard Controls
Psychological hazards in construction primarily involve administrative controls as the most effective means of safeguarding worker mental health. Engineering controls and traditional PPE have limited applicability in this context. Administrative controls include offering employee assistance programs, promoting open communication channels, conducting regular mental health awareness training, and ensuring access to mental health resources.
Moreover, fostering a work environment that emphasizes predictability, stability, and a balanced work-life is crucial for reducing stress and anxiety among construction workers. Creating a culture that encourages seeking help and support without stigma is also important.
Environmental Hazards: A Changing Landscape
Construction workers operate in ever-evolving environmental conditions. Climate change and human activities continue to reshape wildlife habitats and bring about more dramatic weather events. Hotter summers have become the new norm, increasing the risk of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Encounters with bears and other wildlife continue to grow as humans encroach further on natural habitat.
Canada has also witnessed devastating wildfires this year, which has tragically taken numerous lives and projected a stark glimpse of a future with more unpredictable environmental hazards.
💡 Environmental Hazard Controls
Engineering Controls: Consider implementing construction practices that mitigate the impact of environmental changes. For instance, design structures to withstand extreme weather conditions and provide shaded areas for workers during hot summers.
Administrative Controls: Develop and communicate clear environmental hazard protocols to all workers. This includes guidelines for extreme and inclement weather, natural disasters, wildlife encounters, and wildfire prevention. Ensure that workers are aware of emergency response plans and evacuation procedures.
(Tip: A relevant construction safety course here would include wildlife and bear awareness training)
PPE Controls: In the context of environmental hazards, personal protective equipment may involve specialized gear such as heat-resistant clothing and wildlife deterrents. Provide workers with the necessary PPE and ensure they are trained in its proper use.
Improving Construction Health and Safety: The Certificate of Recognition (COR)
The Certificate of Recognition (COR) program is a workplace safety certification program that was first introduced in 1992 as a response to the high rates of workplace injuries and fatalities in the construction industry.
A COR shows that an employer has met the provincial standards set forth by Occupational Health and Safety in the provinces that participate in it. A health and Safety Association / Certifying Body will ascertain this by conducting an audit. To successfully complete the audit process, employers must have a track record of six to nine months of evidence demonstrating the operation of their OHS program and management system.
The entire COR certification process, from initiation to completion, spans around two years for most employers. Once certified, your COR certification remains valid for a three-year period. To retain your COR status in the second and third years, you will need to conduct an annual internal audit.
A study found that COR™-certified firms in Ontario experienced a 28% reduction in lost-time injury rate and a 20% reduction in high-impact injury rate when compared to non-COR™-certified firms of a similar size in the same sector.
Popular Construction Safety Courses
Address common construction health and safety hazards with leading online construction safety training. Browse top SafetyVantage courses below.