Accidents in the Construction Industry: Report

Fatal accidents up almost 10% since 2016/17, with 50% of fatalities due to falling from height, according to latest HSE data

This study was conducted by Herts Tools, specialists providers of plant hire in London. If you’d like to use graphics or data from the study, please get in touch.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recently reported that fatal injuries to UK construction workers have risen 8.3% since 2016/17. The data revealed that half of these fatalities were due to falls from heights, an outcome 284% more likely than being killed by something collapsing or overturning.

While the UK has some of the most comprehensive health, safety and risk assessment policies in Europe, the number of fatalities and accidents is still increasing each year.

Herts Tools wanted to analyse the most up-to-date information to establish how many days have been lost and other costs associated with accidents – as well as what action should be taken to improve safety.

What are the main causes of accidents in construction?

The latest data from the HSE shows 61,000 non-fatal work-related injuries occurred last year (2020/2021). Some 41% of these resulted in absences of over three days and 25% caused a 7-day plus absence. The number of 3-day plus absences was up 44% on 2018 figures.

Employees in the construction industry are statistically more likely to sustain an injury at work: 27 out of 1,000 people suffered one last year, compared to 17 out of 1,000 workers in all other industries. 

Falling from height is the number one cause of non-fatal accidents in the construction industry. A third (33%) of non-fatal accidents are falls from height, followed by slips, trips and falls from the same level (31%); being struck by a moving object (14%); and injuries from handling, lifting or carrying objects (6%).

Accidents like these cause a wide range of specific injuries, which the HSE lists:

  • Fractures to bones other than fingers, thumbs and toes
  • Amputations
  • Injuries likely to lead to blindness or being partially sighted
  • Crush injuries causing brain or organ damage
  • Serious burns or scalding
  • Scalping requiring hospital treatment
  • Loss of consciousness caused by head injury or asphyxia
  • Hypothermia or heat injuries
  • Injuries requiring resuscitation or a 24-hour plus hospital stay

The UK has some of the most comprehensive construction regulations and legislation in the world. The primary law governing occupational health and safety is The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Despite the long history of health and safety legislation in the UK, the very nature of the industry means that accidents will always happen. Construction requires large, powerful tools and machinery, with vehicles criss-crossing work sites and people working on high ladders and scaffolding on a daily basis.

How many fatal accidents occur each year on construction sites? 

According to the most recent HSE report, there were a total of 39 fatal injuries to construction workers in 2020/21, an 8% increase on the annual average for the 2016-2021 period. 

The fatal injury rate for the construction sector is 1.62 per 100,000 workers, around four times the rate for all industries, double the rate in transportation and storage (0.85) and about 2.5x the rate for manufacturing workers. 

The HSE report also found that four members of the public were fatally injured on construction sites last year, with an average of five deaths over the same five-year period.

In terms of general workplace deaths, the UK compares favourably to its European neighbours of a similar size. In 2018, the UK’s standardised rate of fatal injuries at work was 0.61 per 100,000 employees, similar to Germany’s rate of 0.55. The UK’s figure was almost half of Italy’s 1.04 deaths and around a third of Spain’s 1.49 fatal injuries. France came top of the list with some 3.07 deaths per 100,000 employees.

What is the economic cost of workplace injuries? 

Injuries and ill health in workers in Great Britain cost around £16.2 billion in 2018/19. Around 20% (£3.16 billion) of that cost was incurred by employers and 22% (£3.5 billion) by the government. Yet the majority of these costs (59% or £9.56 billion) fall upon the injured/ill individuals themselves.

In 2020, the total economic cost of construction industry injuries was up 34% compared to 2018. The 2020 cost of illness, meanwhile, was roughly equal to 2018 figures.

With businesses, government and individuals all struggling to meet Covid-19 and inflation-related costs, it is vital that more is done to reduce the economic toll of injuries and illness.

How many working days are lost to injury and illness in the construction sector?

Between 2015/16 and 2019/20, the construction industry lost 4.5 million working days due to work-related illness or injury. However, the figure dropped to 2.1 million between 2017/18 and 2019/20, from 2.4 million between 2015/16 and 2017/18, a 12% decrease.

This suggests that some people are not taking days off when sick or injured, which could have serious consequences for their long-term health, both mental and physical. Any physical injuries could be exacerbated by continuing to work, particularly if hard manual labour is required. That will, of course, lead to more sick days in the future.

The same applies to mental health: ignoring symptoms can cause a build-up of stress or anxiety and result in greater problems later on*. Physical illnesses might not only become worse if people don’t rest, but, as Covid-19 has demonstrated, infections can easily be passed on to others.

Another crucial consideration for the construction industry is that having people on site who are not operating at 100% can result in potentially fatal accidents.

What action can be taken to combat accidents in the workplace?

The HSE has two main weapons in their armoury when faced with construction companies allowing dangerous practices on site.

A HSE inspector can serve an improvement notice if they see a contravention of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 – and they believe the contravention will be repeated. They will then discuss with the responsible individual how they can create a safer working environment.

A prohibition notice is served when an inspector becomes aware of an unsafe activity that either has led or could lead to a serious personal injury. The activity cannot be resumed until action has been taken to make it safe.

The number of workplace injuries on site is increasing, yet the number of both prohibition and improvement notices is decreasing each year. In 2020/21, there were 61% fewer prohibition notices issued, when compared to 2017/18. Improvement notices dropped 54% over the same period.

Also, 63% fewer cases were prosecuted, giving UK construction workers little confidence that justice will be done if they suffer an accident at work.

How can construction companies prevent accidents? 

Falling from height

If at all possible, it is best to avoid working at height. If it is necessary, there are four basic rules to follow, according to the Work at Height Regulations 2005**:

  • Plan any work at height
  • Provide proper training
  • Use the right equipment, whether it’s a ladder or a harness
  • Ensure equipment is properly fitted and regularly checked

It’s also important to ensure workspaces are clear and dry, with guard rails and toe-boards in place where required. Of course, appropriate PPE should always be supplied.

There are countless areas on construction sites where workers could suffer a fall: incomplete roofing sections, manholes and scaffolding to name just a few. Companies must make employees aware of the potential hazards in such areas, with regular reminders of the risks.

Slips, trips and falls

Almost a third (31%) of non-fatal accidents are caused by slips, trips and falls from the same level, rather than from height. So how can slips be prevented? 

There are five basic principles to help you avoid slips, trips and falls: 

    • Keep surfaces clean and dry
    • Clear up spillages as quickly as possible
    • Clean surfaces after working hours, if possible
    • Check for loose or damaged flooring
    • Provide ample lighting, so people can identify hazards

However, not all such measures are practical where there are numerous barriers to reducing slips or trips in the workplace. Construction sites are, by their nature, untidy places, where there are likely to be wet surfaces or trailing cables.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 means businesses must ensure the health and safety of employees and anyone could be affected by their work, ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’. But even if all risks can’t be eliminated, they can be mitigated. For instance, slip-resistant footwear can be issued if floors cannot be kept dry.

Struck-by-object hazards

With 14% of all non-fatal accidents on work sites being caused by moving objects, how can we prevent moving objects becoming hazards? Whether it’s a truck or building materials, moving objects are a constant on construction sites. But there are still precautions that can be taken to reduce the risks.

For instance, how do you prevent flying objects? Materials breaking off saws, lathes and similar machines is often unavoidable, but guards can prevent them from harming people operating them, as can safety goggles.

Falling objects are another commonplace hazard: so how can businesses prevent falling debris on construction sites? Canopies or debris nets can catch falling objects, while securing forklift loads and storing heavy objects close to the ground should both be common practice. Yet one of the easiest ways to avoid falling materials on site is by outlawing the throwing of objects between people, particularly from height.

Where can construction workers seek professional advice?

With fatal construction site accidents rising, workers should not hesitate to seek professional advice if they have concerns about safety on their site.

Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity

The charity has been delivering charitable welfare and support to the construction community since 1956. The Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity is funded by the industry, for the industry. 

Mates in Mind

Mates in Mind is a leading UK charity raising awareness and addressing the stigma of poor mental health. We promote and lead on the development of positive mental wellbeing within the workplace. Mates in Mind works across industries, focusing on construction, as well as related sectors, including transport, logistics, manufacturing, and others. 

Construction Industry Helpline

This helpline, from the Best Practice Hub, provides a 24/7 safety net for all construction workers and their families. This includes advice on welfare, emergency financial aid and support on legal, tax and debt management matters.