7 November, 2019

New threats to construction safety from climate changeA recent report in the Guardian revealed a worryingly high number of sudden deaths amongst migrant construction workers in Qatar. Lack of investigation means the underlying cause has not yet been determined but working a ten hour day in temperatures that peak at 45C is understood to exert a significant strain on cardiovascular systems . The Guardian says the regime’s lawyers have recommended that post mortems are conducted but these are not carried out routinely other than in criminal cases. Despite our much deeper appreciation of the importance of safeguarding workforce welfare - and for us in the UK - the legislation that now governs how we build, construction is still a dangerous business.

Now the threat of climate change, which will likely push the parameters of seasonal conditions outside of historic norms is creating new risks. We still live on a temperate island, and perhaps because of that our systems and practices are not designed to deal effectively with weather conditions outside the margins of the average. Despite the annual outrage when a few flakes of snow fall seem to be all it takes to disable the UK transport system, we need to recognise the basic economics of risk. Investment in expensive snow moving equipment that will sit idle all year and may only be needed for a handful of Winter days is seen as poor value for money, given other pressing needs.

These additional threats to the construction workforce will come from colder Winters, hotter Summers and more volatility in the weather. Larger contractors already take workforce welfare and safety very seriously now. It’s not just because of the threat of legislation, the most recent impetus has come from these businesses’ own investment in ESG values. On one of our larger projects the contractor has been offering all operatives free health checks, advice on diet and healthy eating as well as guidance on mental health. People with good health are more active and can be more productive, so steps like these are not entirely altruistic. What isn’t clear is how working practices might change as the climate becomes more volatile.

In the broadest sense it may make construction programme forecasting less accurate. We should anticipate more frequent interruptions to progress caused by higher winds when cranes can’t operate safely, colder weather which puts the curing of concrete at risk, and, like Qatar, elevated temperatures which bring the risk of heat stress to workers exposed for long periods. Gradual changes are often the hardest to detect so responses to increased threats to health may lag behind the emergence of the risk. Better hydration, glare protection, improved safety clothing – for hot and cold conditions , changed shift patterns, working hours and working methods will all be needed. Above all, better education and training will go a long way to mitigating the increased risks to health of those working on site. CBRE’s own Health and Safety Consultancy is involved in wide range of projects, everything from small fit outs projects to major capital work, so we can see how contractors of every size are responding to changing working conditions. It’s probably no surprise that smaller building companies are the least prepared to respond to more unpredictable weather conditions. Whilst they have limited resources, making it hard to treat this as a priority, it’s probable that new legalisation will move this up the agenda at some point in the future.

There may also be some new threats to workforce safety from an unexpected quarter; climate change is having a global impact on some existing sources of raw materials for construction. That means we can expect to see an evolution of building techniques and components as industry transitions to new and different materials. There is always additional risk from the use of novel or unfamiliar methods of construction on site, at least until the workforce has developed the news skills it needs.

For anyone involved in construction, although vigilance has always been needed, there has been a sense that through legalisation and the adoption of safety as a corporate goal, we had established a set of guidelines and practices that worked well to safeguard the welfare of the workforce in what still remains a risky work environment on building sites. Now however, we need to confront the new threats that come from climate change. What remains the most challenging aspect is that, right now , we don’t know what all those threats might be.