Industrial Diseases

08 August 2018

Contractors are worried about industrial diseases, and with good reason. Workplace injuries and illnesses affect the lives of thousands of construction employees, and the costs are astronomical.

Each year, 80,000 construction sector workers suffer workplace-related ill health1; a figure that includes both new and longstanding cases. And each week, an estimated 100 die as a result of work-related activities2.

The costs are substantial, both human and financial. The total cost of workplace injury and new cases of work-related ill health in construction in 2015/16 (the most recent available data) was estimated to be £1 billion (£0.5 billion injury, £0.5 billion illness)3. What should main contractors bear in mind when considering the risk and insurance implications of industrial diseases?

Asbestos-related illnesses are an ongoing issue

Contractors would do well not to ignore more traditional construction risks. That’s not least because they remain the key causes of work-related deaths and ill health. Asbestos is still the single biggest work-related killer in the UK and it can be years before it takes its toll on construction workers’ health.

The HSE forecasts deaths from mesothelioma alone will peak at more than 2,500 for the remaining years of this decade4. However, there is a feeling within the insurance industry that the ‘peak and diminish’ years are yet to come.5 That being the case, it would be foolhardy to dismiss ‘long established’ illnesses as on the decline.

Noise and vibration claims are costing contractors dear

Likewise, noise induced hearing loss and vibration-related cases continue to be significant sources of claims, despite the number of new cases of both conditions falling since the start of the decade.

During the past 10 years, there have been almost 11,000 new cases of hand-arm vibration reported across sectors in the UK, according to the HSE6. And these claims can often be expensive where affected employees are unable to return to their normal work operating vibratory tools.

While asbestos is a big concern because of the high cost per individual claim, conditions such as noise-induced hearing loss and hand-arm vibration syndrome give rise to large claims volumes, the cumulative cost of which can be significant to a contractor and / or their insurers.

Beware of silica and nanotechnology

When considering the risks of the future, contractors would be sensible to look to the past. A common theme in respiratory illness relates to the size of the particles being inhaled. Contractors need to look at where people may be exposed to particles, both at the micron and sub-micron level.

Established materials include diesel and silica. Another potential source of ultrafine particles, 3D printing, could become a problem in the future, as could nanotechnology. The fact that nanoparticles are apparently being used safely as coatings on self-cleaning windows and in plastics offers only limited reassurance.

Risk could be increased by new technology and processes

As technology evolves and we use different methods and tools, risk management in construction projects will need to change. Futuristic technology is being used to make work safer. However, robotics, augmented reality and wearable health and safety technology could lead to new risks, such as musculoskeletal conditions, due to extra weights being lifted by workers using exoskeletons or increased stress from changing work practices.

Additionally, changes in processes can create new risks from old materials. Silica, for example, has long been found in materials such as kerb stones (and is now often found in plastic composites too). In past decades, tools such as block breakers were used to work with kerb stones and similar materials. Only with the move to cut-off saws operating at high speeds did they become a source of dust clouds that can lead to respiratory conditions.

Litigation is changing

Claimants’ solicitors have been known to try to expand upon established cases. For example, vibration white finger cases have developed into carpal tunnel claims. Now, claims are being brought for Dupuytren’s contracture and whole-body vibration.

Along with technology and processes, legal practice evolves too; lawyers’ ‘claims farming’ now has a large role in determining the cases firms face in the courts. The higher recoverable legal costs by claimant solicitors was a key factor in the explosion in noise and vibration claims in the past few years, even though a high proportion of these were spurious and successfully defended.

The claims landscape is evolving

Finally, society itself doesn’t stand still. As the workforce ages and people live longer, the nature of claims also changes, as well as their likelihood. Employees who might have died earlier of other conditions might now live long enough to develop work-related diseases. These diseases are also diagnosed more effectively. That’s good news, of course, but it means we’re unlikely to see the number of cases – and claims – for industrial illnesses diminish any time soon. That being the case, the appropriate construction insurance is essential.

How can I reduce industrial illness risk?

Good record keeping is crucial. The long lead-time for many industrial claims means that there are often big gaps in employers’ documentation. It’s not just risk assessments and policies that get lost, destroyed or, sometimes, never existed, but documents such as pre-employment medical questionnaires that could show responsibility lies elsewhere.

It is often the documents – as much as the employer’s practices – that determine whether the employer can mount a defence. Contractors must seriously consider getting their documents in order and keeping hold of them. Don’t destroy them seven years after a project has ended; it might be 30 years before they’re needed for a case.

Talk to your construction insurance broker

Specialist advice is essential in this area of risk. Partner with a specialist construction insurance broker who can advise you on all aspects of risk management, including how to mitigate exposure to industrial illness claims.

How to reduce workplace risks and insurance costs

For more information, contact Philip Dodd, Construction Claims Partner, on 020 7528 4681. Or email

  1. Health and Safety Executive, Labour Force Survey
  2. Health and Safety Executive, Workplace Fatal Injuries in Great Britain 2018
  3. Health and Safety Executive, Health and Safety in the Construction Sector in Great Britain, 2016/17
  4. Health and Safety Executive, Mesothelioma in Great Britain
  5. JLT Risk Specialist, Preparing for the Industrial Diseases of Tomorrow
  6. Health and Safety Executive, Hand Arm Vibration in Great Britain