Healthier Highways is leading the way to promote road worker health
Article by Steve Perkins, Managing Director of Steve Perkins Associates, working with Elaine Gazzini, Programme & Technical Director at Connect Plus.
Covid-19 has thrown the issue of workplace health into the spotlight. Exposure controls such as social distancing and correct hand washing have been hot topics across the construction sector. However, control of workplace health risks has long been the Cinderella to accident prevention.
When presenting to construction and highways audiences, we often begin with the question: “what is the balance of time spent between working on accident prevention and ill-health prevention as a percentage of the total time you spend on health and safety in your role?” This is caveated with a reminder to exclude time spent on promoting personal wellbeing, in order to focus on ill-health, caused directly by the workplace and covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
The most common response by far is around 90% safety and 10% health. Although this may have improved temporarily due to COVID-19, it illustrates the pressing need for the industry to do much more to tackle the significant burden of work-related ill-health.
The Health and Safety Executive estimates that annually 4,000 construction workers die from occupational lung diseases, and there are 5,500 new cases of occupational cancer in construction each year. At any one time there are over 80,000 construction workers with work-related ill-health, ranging from musculoskeletal disorders to lung disease, and noise-induced hearing loss to stress.
It’s been exciting to see the progress made on mental health awareness and support across the highways sector in recent times, but in the drive for better wellbeing, we must not forget our fundamental responsibility to protect our people’s physical health from the wide range of chemical, physical and biological risks faced in highways construction and maintenance.
Connect Plus has a 30-year, £6.2bn contract with Highways England to manage and improve the M25 network. The M25 is one of the busiest motorways in Europe, covering 440 km of motorway, 5 tunnels, 748 bridges and over 150,000 assets. In normal usage it carries 15% of all UK road and motorway traffic, with the western side used by over 250,000 vehicles per day.
To successfully deliver this contract Connect Plus works as One Community, leading a group of six main supply chain partners – Jackson Civil Engineering, Osborne, Tarmac, Skanska and R&W Civil Engineering, alongside our strategic supply chain partner, Connect Plus Services (CPS). Our community is built on strong relationships and an innovative value-driven community culture. We come together to collectively develop and share like-minded values, behaviours and initiatives. This provides a strong foundation from which to build a strategic approach to worker health protection.
Connect Plus is committed to engaging the community in delivering health and wellbeing programmes that raise the bar for the highways industry. In light of this, in 2019 we began a new collaboration with Steve Perkins Associates to work towards a culture transformation in health, based on the vision of Everyone Protected at Work.
Steve Perkins Associates has developed a model that identifies five critical success factors from hazard awareness to protection assurance. Underpinning these are five strategic enablers, founded on the key competence of the scientific and engineering discipline of occupational hygiene.
We focussed initially on raising awareness of workplace health risks with leaders across the Community and Highways England, through a series of interactive workshops.
Attendees included CEOs, MDs, business directors, framework managers, operations managers, project managers and health and safety managers. This two-way process enabled us to ‘take the temperature’ of the health culture as well as identify individuals with the drive and determination to improve it.
Adapting Prof. Patrick Hudson’s Evolutionary Model of Safety Culture for health, it became clear that our starting point was somewhere between pathological and reactive. The openness and honesty of those discussions was the bedrock on which we could begin to build an effective change initiative. We drew together a multidisciplinary project team combining volunteers from across One Community, CPS and Highways England, supported by experts from Steve Perkins Associates.
The concept of Healthier Highways was developed based on the simple and direct message of Stay Wise | Reduce Risk | Protect Health. The team settled on dust and noise hazards as our initial focus due to their prevalence in highways work.
We launched Healthier Highways at the M25 10-year safety stand down events held in January 2020. Almost 350 staff from offices, depots and sites across the Community, attended one of the sessions. The feedback was very encouraging as many began to grasp the seriousness of health risks for the first time.
At the workshops we unpacked how Stay Wise means understanding exposure hazards and their risks to health. Reduce Risk entails accurate assessment of risk (including exposure measurement) and effective control of those risks. This will Protect Health provided controls are used correctly and consistently, which is where addressing human factors comes in.
Andy Dean, CEO of Connect Plus, commented: “It’s been a great coming together of all of the Framework and CPS, to really inject some life into this… and to be able to get some data regarding the environment we’re putting our people into.”
More information about Healthier Highways is available on the Connect Plus/Connect Plus Services website where the launch brochure can be downloaded.
Alongside the campaign we have, as Andy referred to, begun to target specific highways tasks for measurement and control improvement. The first of these projects has involved dust and noise exposure measurements of paving works; specifically, the planing process. Working collaboratively with Tarmac and Skanska, exposure assessments have been conducted on asphalt paving works across a number of nights.
Although initial results confirm respirable crystalline silica exposures are well below limits, both inhalable and respirable dust levels show room for improvement to protect health. Unsurprisingly noise levels in the vicinity of the operation are well in excess of the action values meaning hearing protection is mandatory.
In light of these findings, Tarmac and Skanska have led a working group with the supply chain and the plant manufacturer, supported by Steve Perkins Associates, to assess the options for improving controls.
We report on the final conclusions of this work in another article, but suffice to say there are operational solutions to improve dust control that work both practically and commercially for planing.
We plan to expand our measurement and control programme to cover other major highways tasks. We recognise that this is a tactical approach, but we believe this is appropriate at this stage, given the level of health cultural maturity in the sector.
Alongside the campaign and our measurement programmes, we are developing our approach more strategically, beginning with a community-wide Gap Analysis.
We recognise that we’re at the start of a journey which is a marathon, not a sprint. But as one young engineer at the launch events commented about workplace health risks across the highways sector, “It is a big issue and we’re still not doing anywhere near enough to fight it, but we are identifying the issues, so we can fight them in the future…”
If we can successfully couple the passion of the younger generation of highways workers with the experience of older generations, and the expertise of occupational hygiene, then health culture change is, we believe, definitely achievable.