Construction: a hazardous work

Document | 15 June 2009

Construction is one of the world’s biggest industrial sectors, including the building, civil engineering, demolition and maintenance industries. It accounts for a large proportion of GDP – 10 percent in the U.K., 17 percent in Japan, for example. In many developing countries, construction is among the fastest growing areas of the labour market, continuing to provide a traditional entry point for labourers. It is, however, one of the most dangerous industries. At least 108 thousand workers are killed on site every year, a figure which represents about 30 per cent of all occupational fatal injuries. Data from a number of industrialized countries show that construction workers are 3 to 4 times more likely than other workers to die from accidents at work. In the developing world, the risks associated with construction work may be 3 to 6 times greater. Many more workers suffer and die from occupational diseases arising from past exposure to dangerous substances, such as asbestos.

Construction workers build, repair, maintain, renovate and demolish houses, office buildings, factories, hospitals, roads, bridges, tunnels, stadiums, docks, airports and more. During the course of their work they are exposed to a wide variety of hazards on the job, including dusts and vapours, asbestos, awkward working positions, heavy loads, adverse weather conditions, work at heights, noise, vibration from tools, among many others. The causes of accidents and ill-health in the sector are well known and almost all are preventable.

The ILO has long sought to protect the safety and health of construction workers through the development and promotion of Conventions, Recommendations and Codes of Practice. The Safety Provisions (Building) Convention (No. 62) was adopted as long ago as 1937. It was superseded in 1988 by the Convention on Safety and Health in Construction (No. 167) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 175). A Code of Practice on Safety and Health in Construction was adopted in 1992. The Asbestos Convention (No. 162) and its accompanying Recommendation (R. 172), which were adopted in 1986, are also of particular relevance to the construction sector. However, these Conventions have not been widely ratified. In addition, the poor image of construction jobs as being traditionally dirty, difficult and dangerous has been compounded by flexible labour market policies, particularly “outsourcing”, in which the construction workforce is recruited through subcontractors and other intermediaries. This has made work in construction increasingly temporary and insecure with a profound impact on occupational safety and health, training and the level of skills.

To address this situation SafeWork is collaborating with the Sectoral Activities Unit (SECTOR) of the ILO and the Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) to promote research, training and the preparation of promotional tools to encourage and promote better practices in the field. We are presently developing a package of construction project management training materials for the main participant groups in the sector – clients (including house-builders and commercial property developers who determine what should be built and where); consultants (designers, architects, estimators, etc.); contractors; and workers – in order for them all to take safety and health considerations on board at all stages of a construction project