Do you have what it takes to join today’s health and safety professionals playing a vitally important role on-site?
How does health and safety fit into the construction industry?
With a vital remit to protect the working population, today’s health and safety professionals take a proactive, preventative approach to problems such as injury, accidents and equipment failure. Ill health is also a major focus in the construction industry in particular, where occupational cancers, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and work-related upper limb disorders (ULDs, a collective term for a range of disorders of the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder and neck) are an enormous area of concern.
Health and safety is of paramount importance in many industries, of course – but perhaps none more so than construction, where risks are particularly high. Sadly the fatality rate in the industry is all too high, with some 39 construction workers being killed in the workplace in Britain in 2020/21* and many more thousands of workers suffering from work-related ill-health conditions like those mentioned previously.
The activities on a construction site are changing constantly across daily tasks as well as phases of work, and include a potentially hazardous combination of moving objects, construction vehicles, lifting equipment, heavy loads and uneven terrain, as well as health-related issues such as exposure to hazardous substances, noise and vibration. Additional risks come from moving around construction sites, with the uneven ground surface presenting the risk of trips, slips and falls.
A vast industry such as construction, with a relatively large number of employees, might naturally be expected to have a higher number of industry-related instances of ill health and fatalities, however this does not make these occurrences acceptable, and the number of career-ending injuries and instances of work-related ill health in relation to the number of industry employees remains grossly disproportionate.
What are the main problems?
Whatever kind of construction work is going on – roadworks, demolition, building, refurbishment – construction sites, like other high-hazard workplaces, present significant health and safety risks. And, while no workplace is completely without risk, there is a clear and enormous difference between the risks present on a construction site compared with, say, an office or shop (see the 'Risks on-site' section of the Factfile box, below).
Risks on construction sites arise because of the hazardous nature of the working environment, the physically demanding nature of the work, and the fact that some of the most damaging occupational injuries or health conditions happen or develop over a considerable period of time. Active risk management through prevention is crucial, as is the need to follow Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommendations across all aspects of the major risk areas. Prevention also includes a full (and frequent) schedule of risk assessment, development of method statements, monitoring and reporting, to help reduce the human cost of fatality and injury in construction, and to maximise health and safety. It is of course vital to address these risk areas – and that’s where trained health and safety professionals come in.
What are the main roles in construction health and safety?
Current health and safety roles often include an environmental remit, so those working in such areas are typically referred to as HSE (health, safety, environment), or SHE, officers for short. HSE officers use their skills and knowledge to promote a positive HSE culture, ensuring that both employers and employees abide by safety legislation, and that safety policies and practices are adopted and observed. They play a vital role in preventing and controlling operational losses and occupational health problems, as well as accidents and injuries. Today, HSE roles have moved several steps away from reactive, accident-based management and towards a more preventative approach, as highlighted by NEBOSH’s Working with Wellbeing course.
HSE advisers and managers help to plan, implement, monitor and review the preventative and protective measures that companies are required, or choose, to follow, and work to minimise accidents and injuries, occupational health problems and operational losses.
The law requires employers to appoint ‘competent’ people with responsibility for HSE matters, irrespective of the size of the organisation or the field in which it operates. A ‘competent’ person is somebody with the necessary experience, training, knowledge and/or other qualities to undertake the role, particularly risk assessment (depending on the nature of the risks present).
In smaller organisations, the HSE ‘competent’ person function might form one part of a wider role, with the individual concerned responsible for it as part of their job while having other responsibilities too. Larger organisations will employ a specialist (or specialists), or use a consultancy.
The day job
If you are thinking of a career as an HSE manager or adviser in the construction sector, what are you likely to find yourself doing on a day-to-day basis?
As your aim is to prevent health problems, accidents and injuries at work, part of your role will call for you to draw up health and safety procedures and method statements, according to national safety legislation. In the construction field, your role could cover areas such as occupational health, noise, safe use of machinery and control of hazardous substances (for other risk areas that are likely to be present on construction sites, see the accompanying box ‘Risks on-site’).
Other key tasks might include:
carrying out inspections and risk assessments, and thinking about how risks could be reduced
investigating accidents and recommending improvements to health and safety standards
keeping records of accidents and inspection findings
writing reports to suggest improvements
advising on protective clothing and safety equipment
ensuring equipment is safely installed
organising safe disposal of hazardous substances (e.g. asbestos)
providing training (to both managers and employees) in HSE issues and risks
staying up to date with changes in the law
developing health and safety campaigns and awareness
budgetary controls (SHE people are senior managers with management responsibilities for areas such as budgeting).
Every day can be different – some days site based, others in the office, and as part of your role you may also be required to attend board meetings to report on performance or meet with auditors. You will also need a clean driving licence if your job calls for you to travel between sites.
It almost goes without saying that most Service people work, for at least some of the time, in potentially hazardous environments or with dangerous equipment, or both. Across all branches and trades there are those with practical experience and awareness of HSE at work – you may well be one of them! Indeed, you might be actively involved in HSE work but perhaps not even recognise that’s what you are doing.
Forces-run modular training courses in HSE, leading to a certificate, offer an opportunity to gain relevant qualifications while you are still serving. You may currently be in a post that enables you to gain significant HSE qualifications (e.g. N/SVQs or NEBOSH qualifications). There are also courses you could take that are aimed at the potential manager who sees HSE as part of their job description (e.g. the IOSH Certificate in Managing Safely or the NEBOSH Health and Safety at Work Award) or the person looking to specialise in this field (e.g. the NEBOSH National General Certificate, seen as the essential minimum qualification for any full-time health and safety job, or NEBOSH Construction Certificate variant).
How do I qualify to work in construction H&S?
To become an HSE adviser, you can either study for health and safety qualifications once you already have a job, or take a relevant training course (perhaps while still serving, where it will also benefit your Forces role) before you look for a trainee position. The type of training you choose will depend on the industry you work in, or wish to work in.
If you are new to HSE, you can start by taking an introductory course that covers the underpinning knowledge that will support future learning/development (e.g. health and safety in the workplace, regulations, risk assessment and basic accident investigation). Courses are usually available on a part-time basis or can be done via online and distance learning. Courses for which you could use your ELC include:
level 3 Award in Health and Safety in the Workplace
level 3 (NVQ) Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety
National General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety.
In particular, N/SVQs at levels 3 and 4 in occupational health and safety practice will provide you with good career opportunities. Other NVQs are at level 5, while the NEBOSH Diploma is recognised for GradIOSH (graduate) membership. NEBOSH Certificates can be achieved in two weeks, however its Diploma takes longer to achieve (it can be done in a year but may take longer).
ELC and SLC cannot be used together but, if you’re looking to use your SLC for training that is below the level 3 threshold, you might want to consider, say, the level 2 Award in Health and Safety in the Workplace, which provides essential knowledge and understanding of health and safety in the workplace. There is also a level 1 Award in Health and Safety in a Construction Environment, if you are looking to work in a HSE-related role in the construction industry; this qualification is a useful start, giving you some very basic knowledge about health and safety, and holding it will allow you to take your CITB health, safety and environment test, and then apply for the new Construction Skills Certificate Scheme (CSCS) Green Card.
To work as a full-time health and safety adviser/manager, you may need a higher level of qualification. You can progress to more advanced qualifications as your skills develop and your level of responsibility grows.
The NEBOSH National Diploma for Occupational Health and Safety Management Professionals is seen as the qualification for HSE practitioners, designed to provide students with the expertise required to undertake a career as a safety and health practitioner. It is not a mandatory entry requirement to hold the NEBOSH National General Certificate to study for the Diploma, however it is highly recommended if you wish to gain a sound understanding of the principles of workplace health and safety.
NEBOSH’s HSE-related courses include the following:
National Diploma for Occupational Health and Safety Management Professionals
International Diploma for Occupational Health and Safety Management Professionals
National General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety
International General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety
Health and Safety Management for Construction (UK) (Certificate)
Health and Safety Management for Construction (International) (Certificate)
For NEBOSH contact details, see ‘Useful info’.
Scientific, engineering or technical degrees, HNDs, HNCs, National Diplomas and National Certificates are particularly appropriate for HSE roles. There are also postgraduate qualifications in HSE, with particular emphasis on occupational, environmental and hygiene aspects. Some universities have MSc distance learning programmes that focus on HSE and can lead to chartered membership of IOSH (see above) within a year. NEBOSH Diplomas and NVQs can also be used towards IOSH chartered membership status.
Training can be expensive, but there is financial help available.
There are numerous areas of risk on a construction site, including the following:
equipment and tools
hand and vibration syndrome (HAVS)
other vibration-related injury
harmful dust and toxic materials
long-term musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
work-related upper limb disorders (ULDs)
manual handling injury
objects falling from height
on-site activity leading to lifelong disability
potential for sensory loss
risk of building or ground collapse
working at height.
GET QUALIFIED WITH NEBOSH
Here’s where to find out more about the H&S qualifications that count …
Other major online job sites and recruitment agencies
Websites of large organisations and multinationals
Websites and publications relating to the industry in which you’re interested – in this case, construction
National and local media
HEALTH & SAFETY APPRENTICESHIPS Opportunities available in this sector include the Health, Safety and Environment Technician apprenticeship. Use your favourite search engine to find out what else is out there, or click here to browse options near you
Use your ELC
Under the ELC scheme, a wide range of learning can be taken, provided it is offered by an approved provider listed on the ELCAS website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to the in-depth features elsewhere on the Quest website
Finding a job
As noted above, most HSE managers/advisers get into this role by either completing a qualification and then looking for work or studying while working. Note, though, that it is becoming more common for advisers to enter the profession with a degree-level qualification. Some good advice is that employers tend to favour job applicants who have great people management and interpersonal skills. Health and safety professionals should also keep their skills up to date by joining a professional body and maintaining their CPD (continuing professional development). And, if you can bring a range of additional skills – such as being able to provide in-house training in areas like manual handling or first aid – that’s another benefit as far as employers are concerned.
In the construction sector, jobs range from a small company employing an individual to a major organisation that has an entire safety team. Many employers look for HSE advisers to also have training qualifications, and to be able to assess the need for, design and deliver safety training.
* HSE report (latest figures currently available): Work-related fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2020/21