When you think of health and safety in construction, it's common for issues around physical health and safety to leap to mind. After all, construction work involves large machinery, heavy lifting, and labour-intensive processes.

But health and safety is also about mental health, an area in which the construction industry's track record has historically been weaker.

The HSE's new campaign

In November, the HSE launched its Working Minds campaign, which it says "aims to help businesses recognise the signs of work-related stress and make tackling issues routine". The HSE has also stated that "last year more than 17 million working days were lost as a result of stress, anxiety, or depression. A recent survey by the charity Mind suggests that two in five employees’ mental health had worsened during the pandemic."

While this does not solely relate to Construction, these statistics do: figures from the Office for National Statistics show there were 2,526 suicides in construction between 2011 and 2019, and this was just in England. The vast majority of these were men – accounting for 2,510 or 99.4% of those suicides. And these figures don't cover the pandemic years, nor the many other construction workers struggling with mental health issues, like stress, anxiety and depression.

As such, the HSE's campaign is a timely one. It is a positive step, targeting six million workers in smaller businesses, to ensure that "psychological risks are treated the same as physical ones in health and safety risk management".

Larger and medium sized firms should also take note though because, although the obligations are the same for all dutyholders, as they are better resourced the HSE will have higher expectations of them to have "psychological risk" on their radar and measures in place to address it.

So, what should construction businesses be aware of?

The most important thing for them to understand is that under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers have a duty "to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees" – and that that duty encompasses mental health and wellbeing as well as physical health. 

There are a range of legal and financial implications if employers do not fulfil their duty, including prosecution and service of Improvement Notices. The cost of an investigation might also lead to Fee For Intervention (FFI) charges being levied by HSE. With HSE being entitled to charge for its investigative time at £160 per hour under the FFI scheme, the financial damage – along with the legal implications and reputational risk - for businesses failing to meet the required standard is a very real one.

It has undoubtedly been a stressful few years in construction – planning and preparing for business post-Brexit, keeping projects running throughout the pandemic despite health anxieties relating to COVID-19, dealing with the curveballs thrown by labour and material and even HGV driver shortages, significant price increases, bringing or fending off claims for delay and disruption…it's been relentless. And it's unsurprising that so many people are under strain, regardless of their position in their business.

Top tips for protecting your construction workers

Talk – despite recent progress, construction is still a male dominated industry: figures from Statistica on the number of people employed in the UK construction industry show us that in Q2 2020 1,939,000 men were employed in the UK construction industry compared to 298,000 women. It will take some time for construction shake off its "tough guy" image. But it's important for employers to foster a workplace where their workers can ask for help, talk about their concerns, and seek support. Raising awareness, sharing information, training, and challenging behaviours are all part of this.

Lead – leaders in the business need to show real commitment to creating mentally healthier workplaces. This includes leading by example - and speaking up about and being honest about their own experiences. That way they can be both leaders and role models.

Check risk assessments – do your risk assessments cover both physical risks and mental health risks? If you're not sure if they do, review them now! Remember those employer duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act that we mentioned above.

Support – consider what support you can offer, for example, through trained peer support, and mental health first aiders. Consult your workers about your specific business and culture and see what works and doesn't work, and where more support can be provided.

Commit – sign up to the Building Mental Health Charter to demonstrate commitment to making improvements around mental health. This is a "freely available, industry-wide framework and charter to tackle the mental health crisis in the construction industry". The website has materials, training and videos which can help you make faster progress.

Research – there are plenty of resources around, including on the HSE's Stress and Mental Health at Work webpage, the Mental Health at Work's Building Mental Health in Construction Toolkit and for more information about mental health in the construction industry the CITB has published its Mental Health and Wellbeing Research.

Finally, remember, this is not an issue which is just trending for now, to be forgotten about next year. It is something which is firmly on the HSE's radar and should be on all business' agendas to progress and improve, particularly as the full impact of the pandemic on mental health is not yet clear.

For more about Health & Safety and Construction, visit our re:build Britain hub here.

This article is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice.