New Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations came into force on 6 April 2022, to extend the previous legislation which dated back to 1992. The changes have been put into place to extend protection to a wider group of workers, including casual and self-employed workers.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is designed to protect workers against health and safety risks as they carry out their job roles. Typical items of PPE used on construction sites include hard hats, high-vis garments, safety footwear, eye goggles, gloves, safety harnesses, and respirators.

Employers have a duty to provide appropriate levels of PPE free of charge, if it is deemed to be necessary after a risk assessment. The government’s Health & Safety website defines PPE as the following:

“PPE is defined in the PPER 1992 as ‘all equipment (including clothing affording protection against the weather) which is intended to be worn or held by a person at work and which protects the person against one or more risks to that person’s health or safety, and any addition or accessory designed to meet that objective’.”

The new regulations extend rather than replace the existing version, to encompass ‘limb workers’, who are defined as casual or contract workers, who do work a fixed number of days or hours per week. Limb workers must now have the same provision and access to workplace PPE as all employees.

Employers have a legal duty to ensure that all PPE is not only provided, but compatible with the requirements of the user, maintained in a serviceable condition, correctly stored, and used properly. Training and instruction on the correct use of PPE should be given, and workers cannot be charged for its use.

Health and Safety regulations are important in any workplace of course, but they are crucial for a hazardous industry such as construction. According to the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive, 2.2 million working days are lost each year on average in the construction industry.

In addition, there are an average of 66,000 work related injuries sustained each year, amounting to about 3% of the workforce. There were 39 fatal injuries to construction workers in 2021, which is the highest figure of all the main industries in the UK.

Construction workers are disproportionately prone to suffering from work-related ill health. Unsurprisingly, musculoskeletal disorders account for 54% of all illnesses, whether new or long-standing. The work often involves manual handling of loads and equipment, working from height, and using high impact tools, which carry a high element of risk.

Perhaps more surprising to some is that the second highest reason for ill health is given as stress, anxiety, or depression, at 27% of all illnesses. PBC today reports that the Covid pandemic took a heavy toll on construction workers, which exacerbated the already high levels of mental illness in the industry.

The risk of suicide among male construction workers is thought to be three times the national average, with 26% reporting suicidal thoughts over the past year. An alarming 97% of construction workers reported high levels of stress during the same period. So why is this such a serious problem in the sector?

Working in construction can be quite isolating, as workers often move around frequently for new jobs, or work away from home for long periods. The work itself is often highly pressured, to meet deadlines on big-budget projects.

Workers are often on insecure contracts, or self-employed, which means they don’t get paid if they have to take a sick day, or are prevented from working by poor weather. Added pressures from the supply chain problems and ongoing materials shortages are piling extra burdens of worry on people already nearing burnout.

Until recently, mental health in the construction industry was rarely discussed, but now that is beginning to change. The charity Mates in Mind has been set up to investigate and support the mental welfare of those in the industry.

Sarah Casemore, managing director of Mates in Mind, said: “We have a real concern that the data shows that sole traders and those working in smaller firms with more severe anxiety were least likely to seek help from most sources.”

She added “This means that too many construction workers every day are going under the radar and are not seeking support from healthcare professionals or mental health charities. This represents a real hidden crisis, which threatens the viability of a major sector of the UK economy and many of those who work in it.”

Hopefully, with greater awareness of the problem, more construction workers will feel encouraged to open up about their own struggles and seek help, before it is too late.

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