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This article was written by Gavin Coyle, CEO of leading health & safety recruiters Coyle Group, as a guest post for Safety Storage Systems.

According to the HSE, there was an average of 66,000 self-reported non-fatal workplace injuries in the U.K. construction industry across 2013/14-2015/16. This comes in addition to 79,000 cases of self-reported work-related illnesses. These illnesses and injuries led to 2.2 million working days lost across to sector resulting in millions of pounds in financial losses for construction companies.

Key culprits behind these incidents and illnesses were obvious contributors such as falls, slips, stress, lifting, handling and falling objects. However, a concerning rising safety hazard in the construction industry is the mishandling and misuse of hazardous materials.

How are construction workers exposed to hazardous materials?

The use of hazardous materials and chemicals is commonly identified as a key hazard in manufacturing industries but can often be overlooked in construction. Perhaps unknowingly, construction workers are handling, using and emitting hazardous materials every day on site.

For example, in renovation and demolition projects, workers can often be exposed to asbestos which can cause serious respiratory diseases. Workers are also exposed to hazardous chemicals and materials such as caustic soda, concrete and plaster additives, solvents, paints, timber treatment chemicals, pesticides etc. and flammable substances such as propane which can cause burns, emit harmful fumes and present an active threat of explosion or fire. Specific processes conducted every day on construction sites can also emit harmful gases and liquids.

Best practices for handling and storing hazardous materials

It is the responsibility of safety teams on construction sites to ensure to include provisions and procedures for handling and storing hazardous chemicals and materials. Specific best practices include:

Provide Correct Training

Construction workers must be aware of the hazardous materials they will be likely to handle and be exposed to on site and of the specific measures and precautions they must take when exposed to these materials to protect their health and safety. Specific training must be provided regarding the materials they will encounter and the best practice handling, use and storage of such materials.

Ensure Proper Chemical Storage

Any hazardous materials including caustic soda, lead paints, solvents, glues, adhesives etc. must be stored in secure, bunded chemical storage cabinets. The use of a lockable chemical storage cabinet minimises the risk of unauthorised personnel handling hazardous materials and also reduces the risk of fires, explosion, leaks, spills as well as contamination of soil.

Provide Additional PPE

In addition to the standard overalls, hard hats and rigger boots that construction workers are required to wear on site, any workers who are required to handle or encounter hazardous materials must be provided with specific protection personal equipment to reduce the risks of injury or illness from their encounter with these materials. Such additional PPE may include goggles, gloves. Aprons, shoe covers and face shields or masks.

Limit the Use & Storage of Hazardous Materials

In planning the processes and materials to be used and deployed on site, procurement and project managers should work with safety teams to actively minimise the use and emittance of hazardous materials.

  • Minimise the level of welding and soldering conducted in confined spaces.
  • Choose paints, solvents and other building materials which are less hazardous to the environment and personnel, not just based on their cost and durability.
  • Estimate the required level of hazardous chemicals or liquids required and store only this level on site.
  • Minimise the use of processes which emit harmful gases and vapours and consider alternative approaches to these processes.

Maintain an Emergency Response Plan

The threat of hazardous leaks or spills on construction sites often far exceeds the expectations of workers. Due to the overwhelming level of hazardous substances stored on site, spills and leaks can present an immediate threat to the health and safety of workers and a serious disruption to a construction project. It is imperative to maintain an appropriate emergency response plan with suitable equipment provided on site to deal with minor leaks and spills – spill kits, bunds, drain seals, containment barriers etc. and specific procedures to follow and external spill removal agencies and emergency services to contact in the event of a chemical or oil spill.

Chemical Safety – As Prominent a Safety Concern as Any Other

Exposure to hazardous chemicals and materials is continuously emerging as a growing cause of injuries and illnesses on construction sites. Construction safety teams have a duty to ensure that the H&S policies and procedures they draft for each project include considered protocols for the use of hazardous materials. Chemical safety should not just feature as a by-line or after-thought in programs and procedures submitted to construction personnel. It must be established as a prominent safety concern just as any other for construction workers.

About Coyle Group

Coyle Group specialise in recruiting health and safety professionals globally, servicing clients specifically across the construction, oil and gas, engineering, power generation and renewables industries. CEO Gavin Coyle is a seasoned health and safety expert with a deep personal investment in health and safety issues. He has worked with some of the world’s leading Oil & Gas, Power Generation, Wind Energy and Construction companies.