Industry eye

"Britain's beefy builders say bye bye to baring bottoms," was the rather risqué headline on a recent Department of Health press release which was actually about construction firms signing up to improve the health of their workers.

The Responsibility Deal Construction Pledge is part of something called the Responsibility Deal Health and Work network, which is all about getting employers to look after the health of their employees properly.

While this seems like a good idea on paper, there's one little problem here and that's with the word employees. Most of the UK's big contractors employ few people directly, and few of them actually work physically on site. When you get to the sub-sub-sub-contractor actually doing the work – Bob and his brother – I can't see them producing annual health and wellbeing reports or arranging health checks.

Is the health and wellbeing of construction workers really "crucial to our economy"? The whole model of construction project delivery in the UK is based on not employing people directly so that when workers get too ill, or too expensive, or too old, we can ship in some new ones.

That point aside, the first part of the pledge which covers avoiding the causes of health problems is good stuff, although I would certainly hope that the likes of Costain, Lend Lease, Skansa and VINCI - who are all signatories - are already on the case. This is what everyone has to sign up to:

• having robust and pragmatic policies and safety procedures in place when dealing with such health risks as asbestos and carbon monoxide;

• doing everything possible to reduce workers' exposure to substances that cause respiratory disease or breathing difficulty;

• ensuring noise on construction sites is kept to a minimum and where necessary workers have hearing protection;

• avoiding musculoskeletal disorders caused by unnecessary and hazardous manual handling.

In addition, companies who sign the pledge have to work towards at least one of these three actions:

• An annual health and well-being report

• Provide clinical occupational health services to relevant standards

• Develop programmes to actively promote health and wellbeing

The construction pledge was launched in October at a Crossrail site, with 34 contractors, consultants and clients signing up initially; more have signed up since. Much was made of the fact that 11 smaller suppliers were among their number, which is great, but we have to remember that Crossrail has always been focussed on occupational health and made that clear to suppliers and their supply chains at tender time.

Health checks, reports and occupational health services all cost money, and for a smaller firm the proportion of resource required is bigger. If clients want to see professional companies which go the extra mile with employee health in their supply chains, they have to factor that into their budgets and tender procedures. It's not just smaller suppliers, its smaller clients - like local authorities - who need to sign the pledge too.

This article has been written for Industry Image by Kristina Smith, who is a freelance construction writer and editor.