The construction industry is among the most dangerous in South Africa in terms of fatalities. SHEQ MANAGEMENT takes a look at the essentials needed to protect employees in the industry

There are a number of hazards that construction personnel face, including immediate threats like head injuries or falling from heights, which could result in fatality or permanent disability, and long-term threats like working in uncomfortable positions or cramped spaces, which could lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Lennie Samuel, a senior inspector and forensic investigator at the Department of Labour (DoL), notes that there are between 1,5 and 2,5 fatalities in the construction industry per week. It is, therefore, important to provide employees with the correct training and equipment to ensure their safety.

Training is offered by a number of institutions including professional bodies. Associations, such as Master Builders South Africa (MBSA) and the South African Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Saiosh), or companies like the National Occupational Safety Association (Nosa), also assist companies through conferences and seminars to update construction professionals on best practice, new procedures and legislation.

In order to ensure a construction site is safe, companies need to invest in the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), provide employees with training on occupational health and safety (OHS), use equipment correctly and provide employees with assistance in worst-case scenarios.

Head to toe protection

PPE includes protection for the head, hands, feet, respiratory systems and hearing, as well as fall-arrest systems. The correct PPE will depend on the application and environment. Hearing protection, for example, is required for all employees in an environment with noise above 85 dB.

A site manager, who visits the site infrequently, might need toe caps and a standard hard hat, while the construction workers who are on site every day will require reinforced boots and specialised safety helmets. There are, however, some basics that every construction site should have on hand.

A head for safety

The most obvious PPE needed on a construction site is  the hard hat. Every construction worker requires a safety helmet that sits comfortably with enough ventilation to avoid sweating or discomfort that can result in him or her removing the hard hat. Removing the safety helmet for  only a couple of seconds can lead to injury.

There are an estimated 89 000 cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) reported in South Africa each year. While the majority of TBIs are a result of vehicle accidents and interpersonal violence, about 25 percent can be attributed to falls. International statistics suggest that ten percent of TBIs are caused by workplace injuries.

Safety helmets or hard hats assist in protecting employees from TBIs and a number of other possible injuries. Companies should consult industry experts on the correct hard hat or safety helmet needed as they are manufactured from different materials for different applications.

Hard hats made from polycarbonate-based materials, for example, can resist heat of up to 140°C; polypropylene resists heat of up to 160°C; and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) can resist heat of about 105°C.

Companies should also consider the colour of the hard hat to ensure visibility, its resistance to certain chemicals and the ultraviolet (UV) inhibitor to protect against burns and long-term effects of sun exposure such as skin cancer.

Some safety helmets come with additional features such as chin straps, visors, face shields, earmuffs, lamp brackets and cable clips. Although some attachments could assist an employee (for example a head lamp could free up their hands), it is also important to ensure that these attachments don’t hinder them.

Uncomfortable or distracting attachments could cause staff to remove their safety helmet, which puts them at risk. Helmets should, on average, be replaced every two to three years from the date of issue to the user. Companies should consult the supplier on the lifespan of the hard hat. A construction site should also always have sufficient safety helmets available for visitors.

Giving employees a hand

Protective gloves or hand protection also plays an important role in ensuring that construction workers are protected when working with the various materials and machinery. Hand injuries are one of the most common forms of injury in the workplace, but also the most preventable. There is a wide variety of hand PPE to choose from. It is important to choose the correct protection.

A bricklayer might require only basic gloves to protect against the roughness of the material, while an employee who is operating a saw might need reinforced gloves that are cut resistant.

Along with acquiring the correct gloves, it is important to ensure employees are well trained in using them. At the 2018 Saiosh Conference, Jeremiah Mostrom, director of sales for HexArmor/uvex, noted: “About 70 percent of hand injuries are as a result of the person not wearing gloves. The other 30 percent are due to people not wearing the right gloves.”

The glove needs to fit the application, but also the employee. A glove that is too tight will be uncomfortable, while a glove that is too big will make it difficult for the employee to safely control machinery. The glove can also get stuck in machinery, which creates another hazard rather than providing a solution.

When purchasing gloves, consider whether they are cut or puncture resistant, which chemicals they can endure, their grip capability, endurance and the industry for which they have been designed.

To catch you when you fall

Fall-arrest systems are arguably the most important aspect of safety in the construction industry. The industry faces a high number of fall-related injuries, particularly falls from heights. A fall-arrest system assists in preventing injury if an employee slips and falls.

No matter what fall-arrest system is used, it is crucial that all employees are well trained to safely use the equipment and perform a rescue. While there are various local rescue services available to assist, rescuers might not be able to respond in time, in which case employees should be able to step in.

A person dangling upside down unconscious, for example, can experience pooling of blood and loss of muscle movement, which can quickly become deadly. Immediate action is therefore required.

A fall-arrest system might include cables or ropes, anchor points, harnesses and fall-arrest devices. When purchasing equipment, it is important to consider the size, weight and level of fitness of the employee who will be operating the system. For example, an employee who weighs almost 100 kg won’t be able to use a harness with a carrying capacity of 100 kg if they also have a utility belt and other equipment to carry.

The combined weight of the employee and their equipment should be less than the carrying capacity of the harness. Employees who suffer from high blood pressure, epilepsy, diabetes, heart disease, or have a fear of heights, should not work at heights as they are at a greater risk of injury. Unfit employees might also struggle to perform a rescue if needed.

Employers should consult with the supplier on the correct equipment required. Many suppliers will also be able to assist in training personnel to use the equipment and maintain it. Unlike other PPE, the entire fall-arrest system should be checked before every use. Even if an employee simply stopped for lunch or a bathroom break, they need to check the equipment before continuing with their work.

Just as choosing the correct PPE is essential, it is important for companies to ensure the PPE is in good working condition. At any sign of damage or ageing the equipment should be replaced. Consult with the PPE supplier on maintaining equipment and its suggested lifespan. The equipment should meet local and international quality standards.

Knowledge is power

In order for companies to provide employees with the best possible safety, it is important to appoint a trained and qualified OHS officer. However, it is also important for every individual in an organisation to be trained in basic health and safety, so that they can make smarter safety decisions.

An employee who understands the importance of wearing PPE is more likely to use it. Additional training should be provided to employees who work with specialised equipment or at heights. These employees are more vulnerable to accidents and need to be regularly updated on safety procedures. It is also important for the site manager and management to have a plan in place in case of an incident.

An important part of training is reminding employees about safety procedures. This could include the use of signage or monthly refresher meetings and workshops. The latter can assist OHS officers to learn more about the concerns or challenges faced by employees. It is important for companies to continuously find innovative ways to remind employees to act safely and wear
their PPE.

Back-breaking work

Employees in the construction industry often perform labour-intensive work in uncomfortable spaces. In the United Kingdom (UK), construction was the leading industry in terms of MSDs between 2014 and 2016.

The sector has a high prevalence of back disorders, with about 920 per 100 000 workers reporting back disorders, compared to an all-industry average of 490 per 100 000 workers.

Reportedly, 15,5 percent of construction workers complained of upper-back pains while 43,7 percent complained of lower-back pains. The latter could be caused by the bent-over position often required to perform work in the construction sector and lifting heavy equipment or materials.

According to the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), approximately 30 percent of construction workers suffer from MSDs globally, yet ergonomics remains an unimportant part of health and safety programmes in this industry despite its potential to assist in reducing injuries.

There are a number of interventions that can contribute to improving ergonomics such as awareness, safe working procedures, redesigning tools, prefabrication and on-site workshops.

Betting on bad luck

It is important for construction companies to have workmen’s compensation. All industries claim workmen’s compensation under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida), which is managed by the DoL. This system is considered to be complex and frustrating.

In 2017, there was a backlog of 60 000 cases. The Compensation Fund is plagued with poor administration, archaic computer systems and unpaid claims. The DoL is attempting to address the backlog by updating its processes, employing new skilled staff, better monitoring and reorganisation.

However, the construction industry can easily bypass this entire system by claiming its workmens compensation from the Federated Employers Mutual (FEM) Assurance, which is a registered assurance organisation. FEM simplifies the process and offers rebates to clients who don’t claim.

This could ease the financial burden on an organisation when an injury or fatality does occur. In 2015, FEM reported 7 721 injuries among policy holders of which 61 were fatal and 603 led to permanent disability. In 2016, FEM paid R163 million in medical claims.

Deon Bester, OHS manager at the Master Builders Association of the Western Cape, estimates that the national average cost per accident is R27 244.

Indirect costs, such as the incident investigation, lost production, legal fees and the cost of overtime, account for up to 14,2 times more of the total cost of an accident than direct costs, such as medical expenses and pension or wage paid to the family.

Herman Enoch, marketing and communications manager at FEM, notes: “Workmen’s compensation is a compulsory insurance product and covers employees for all costs associated with injuries on duty. It will also pay a pension to the family of a fatally injured employee.

“FEM offers the same compensation a company would get from government. There are no fees or commissions to join. All assessment rates are set out by government. FEM strives to offer the best possible service to settle claims quickly. An employer, can, however, only belong to one of these institutions,” he adds.

In order to be a member of FEM, the company needs to be registered under Class V, or be in the building and construction industry. FEM paid R856 million in annual merit rebates over a five-year period to its claim-free clients.

Stay up to date on the latest health and safety issues in the construction industry by visiting the SHEQ MANAGEMENT website at or subscribing to the magazine.

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