Construction Workers continued to work through COVID-19 – but how can we keep them safe going forwards?

Construction workers have continued to work on-site throughout the coronavirus pandemic, practising social distancing as much as possible while carrying out their work. While work has continued, the amount of work has, understandably fallen considerably, with the ONS observing a record-breaking fall of 40% in construction output in April’s report. Though output has since begun to increase again as the ONS publishes monthly data, the industry will still face a tough recovery. The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) also predicts a 10% drop in employment by September, indicating the hard times employers and staff will face over the next few months.

With 3 in 5 tradespeople stating they’ve experienced mental health issues in lockdown, it’s clear that the mental health crisis construction faced before the advent of the pandemic will only get worse due to job insecurity, economic recession and the continued public health threat of the virus itself. Employers will need to be considerate of the mental health challenges faced by their employees and should consider ways to support workers, as well as those facing redundancy.

 

How coronavirus deaths have affected tradespeople

According to data from the ONS as of the 25th May, men in skilled trades occupations have seen the highest number of deaths from coronavirus at 500, but the third highest rate per 100,000 people. As a majority male industry, this is to be expected, but this is a considerable number of workers to lose during the three-month period recorded. Many still working in construction will have lost colleagues, friends and family to the virus which in itself is likely to compound mental health challenges presenting themselves during lockdown.

Coronavirus deaths have also disproportionately affected those in the industry that are in the lowest quintile of the index of deprivation. With a significant percentage of the industry at risk of losing their jobs, those in a more unstable economic situation will continue to experience the worst of this pandemic, from both a health and social perspective.

 

Construction worker job satisfaction in the past

In the CIPD’s Good Work Index, published last month, the HR body ranked skilled construction workers 12th out of 24 occupation groups for overall job satisfaction. This data is taken from the previous year and shows construction workers’ approach to job satisfaction before the coronavirus pandemic. The CIPD uses employment contracts as a metric for job satisfaction so, if the CLC is correct, underemployment will soon become a much bigger issue in the construction industry, contributing to lower overall job satisfaction.

 

Wider health challenges in the construction sector

The Stevenson/Farmer report in 2017 observed that men in construction were 35% more likely to commit suicide than the national average. This indicates the threat poor mental health posed to those in construction even while the industry was in growth. Additionally, calls to the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity mental health helpline increased by 25% in April as workers came to terms with the lockdown. The construction industry was battling a major mental health crisis before coronavirus and this mustn’t be forgotten by industry leaders during the difficult times ahead.

 

Actions that could be taken to support workers mentally

In addition to considering how to support workers’ physical health, construction industry leaders need to support mental health in the same capacity. A report by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) this year found that 56% of construction professionals work for organisations that have no established mental health support policies. Mental health support will also be vital for those faced with redundancy over the next few months who will lose access to any support their employers currently offer. For this reason, employers should signpost workers to free mental health initiatives that can be relied on even by those who are out of work.

For example, the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity offers mental health support for all construction workers, running a mental health helpline as well as a free app with mental health resources for those less comfortable speaking to people about their struggles. Mates in Mind work with businesses to establish mental health support for staff but they also have free mental health resources available on their site which could be beneficial for construction professionals both in and out of work. While it will be important for businesses to create their own mental health policies, this is expected to be a period of disruption for the industry so a variety of services will be needed to manage the incoming challenges.

While Covid-19 is the biggest public health challenge society has faced in a generation, we must not allow it to obscure all the other challenges we face. With poor mental health posing such a threat to construction workers already, focus needs to be placed on both challenges if the industry is to recover with as little harm to its workers as possible.

This article was written by Damon Culbert from SMAS Worksafe, SSIP accreditation professionals for the construction industry.