Working in the refurbishment and fit-out industry may be safer than working in agriculture or the Oil and Gas Industry, but there are still a number of risks that your employees will encounter. Site managers and employers need to identify and mitigate these potential risks to ensure that their employees remain fit and healthy, and that they are able to discharge their duties under the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015 and The Health and Safety at Work Act.
Every site is different, but risk assessments need to investigate the potential presence of any of the following hazards.
Still the UK’s number cause of work-related deaths, asbestos presents a significant risk to employees. Used extensively in construction for decades, asbestos dust can be found in shops, offices and homes across the country. When inhaled, asbestos particles lead to a range of respiratory illnesses including mesothelioma, a fatal form of lung cancer.
Site risk assessments must consider the potential presence of asbestos, the risk it presents to workers, and how it should be managed. Where significant risk is identified, you will need to arrange to have dust and cladding removed and disposed of properly to reduce the chances of lethal dust being inhaled.
During the course of a refurbishment, construction and fit-out typically creates a variety of dusts. Carpentry generates sawdust, while stone masonry and dressing creates silica dust, and removal of redundant materials releases all manner of accumulated dust into the local environment.
These dusts are easily inhaled, creating a number of potential problems. From harmless, annoying irritation of the nose, throat and eyes, to the more serious accumulation of dust in the lungs. Employees working with, and inhaling, sawdust, are four times more likely to develop asthma. The dust created by cutting certain hardwoods is also known to cause cancer of the nose.
Silicosis is a condition caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica, which is generated when stone is cut. Not only does the dust collect in the lungs, but it also causes scarring to the tissue, the development of a chronic cough and in some cases, lung cancer and death.
Employers are legally bound to monitor and control airborne dust, ensuring that levels do not exceed 5mg per cubic metre (5mg/m3). Where there is a significant risk of dust being generated or disturbed during a fitting project, site owners will need to install extraction equipment and issue employees with personal protective equipment (see below) to limit the amount of dust they inhale.
3. Manual handling
Fitting involves carrying or supporting heavy, awkward weights throughout the course of the day, each of which presents the potential for injury. Where manual handling best practice is not applied, the potential for injury increases exponentially.
Employers need to ensure that fitters are properly trained to assessing weights before lifting, and that they are using safe techniques to lift and carry objects. Where potential problems are identified, fitters will need to be supplied with lifting equipment to help them maintain safety standards.
The sound levels created by tools have the potential to cause permanent hearing damage with up to 20,000 people reporting work-related hearing problems every year. Between 150 and 200 workers go deaf each year because of industrial noise.
Employers are expected to monitor and reduce workplace noise to keep it within a specified range to protect their workers. Any measures taken must first focus on reducing noise in general, so that risks to everyone in the area are minimised. Where your employees are engaged directly with noisy equipment in excess of 85db, they will need to be issued with ear defenders or other suitable PPE (see below).
You have a noise problem if your employees have to raise their voices to carry out a normal conversation when about 2 m apart for at least part of the day;
5. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
For any task that sees fitters exposed to hazardous substances, noise or other environmental factors that pose a health risk, employers will need to ensure that they are issued with suitable personal protective equipment (PPE). The routine risk assessments undertaken for every fitting out activity should identify tasks requiring PPE, along with suggestions about the exact equipment required.
Goggles, face masks, gloves and ear defenders should all be standard equipment for your employees, but they will also need training to ensure they know when to use such, and how to do so for maximum protection.
6. Working at heights
Building partitions, Plastering walls and installing suspended ceilings must often be carried out above head height. Whenever there is call to use a ladder or scaffolding tower, employers will need to ensure that an adequate risk assessment has been performed, and that employees have been properly trained in working safely at height.
Much of the day-to-day assessment and mitigation will need to be performed by fitters themselves, so full training is essential.
7. Personal health
No matter how rigorous the risk assessment and mitigation process may be, employees working on site will retain a certain degree of personal responsibility for ensuring that the method statements are followed correctly. If your business employs CSCS-certified workers, you can be sure that they will already have a working knowledge of personal health and safety as soon as they arrive on site.
However, you must also train employees on using specific equipment or techniques safely, empowering them to mitigate and avoid health risks themselves. Regular refresher training and assessments will help to spot where corners are being cut, or bad working practices are circumventing risk assessments and protective measures.
8. Site welfare
As part of your preparations prior to starting a project, you must also ensure that there are sufficient welfare provisions in place on site. Employees will need access to toilets and washing facilities, along with adequate drinking water.
For extended projects, they will also need changing facilities and somewhere secure to store PPE when it is not in use. These provisions must form part of your early project planning and risk assessment.
This all sounds very complicated, but in most cases, keeping employees safe on site is a case of applying common sense to every situation. But if you are ever in any doubt, you must obtain professional assistance or potentially risk the health and safety of employees.
So over to you – As an employer, it is your responsibility for keeping employees working on interior fit out projects safe?
David Cant is a Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner extraordinaire. He has a wealth of Industry experience and is the MD of Veritas Consulting. David also Blogs about Health and Safety at www.optimumsafetyconsultants.co.uk and at www.veritas-consulting.co.uk.