Inspecting Occupational Safety and Health in the Construction Industry

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The International Labor Organization

Summary Statement

International Labor Organization handbook is designed to help provide information and training for inspectors. It contains information on key safety and health concepts and occupational safety and health issues, including managing an inspection program and performing on-site inspections.

Section 6: OSH organization of the construction enterprises and sites, including management of subcontractors

Occupational safety and health in the construction industry is highly dependent on the human resources involved, their expertise and their organisation, i.e. on the way the relationships among them are established and the functions detailed. These issues are presented in subsection 6.1.

On the other hand, the construction enterprises and sites are more and more management and coordination organisations, whose actual work is mostly performed by chains of subcontractors. This brings out the importance of the management of subcontractors, an issue that is addressed in subsection 6.2.

6.1 OSH organisation of construction enterprises and sites

Construction enterprises may be classified, by the number of workers employed, as (Table 7): micro (fewer than 10 workers), small (10 to 49 workers), medium (50 to 249 workers) and large (250 or more workers). This is the classification used in the European Union, but individual countries may use other classifications. In many countries, the average number of workers per construction enterprise is estimated at 5 or 6.

Table 7: Classification of construction enterprises by the number of workers employed

Classification Nr. of workers employed
Micro < 10 workers
Small 10 to 49 workers
Medium 50 to 249 workers
Large ≥ 250 workers

On the other hand, although the number of construction sites is very high in many countries, only a few are large construction sites (employing 250 or more workers). Micro and small construction sites predominate in most countries.

The OSH organisation of construction enterprises and sites should take this into account and equip their organisations with the technical resources needed to ensure that safety and health measures are implemented. These resources should be appropriate for the working environment and the potential hazards/risks involved. There is a difference between resources needed for construction enterprises and those needed for construction sites.

In many countries, the law requires enterprises to organise in-house or external OSH services depending on the number of workers employed in each workplace (meaning each building and/or group of buildings all together in a small area). In some countries, construction enterprises must organise in-house OSH services at each workplace where there are 50 or more workers.

The OSH experts to be involved in the OSH organisation will depend on the size, complexity and specific hazards/risks in each workplace. For example, the requirements for the OSH experts, in terms of their number and qualifications, for a chemical plant will certainly be different from those required for an office block.

This principle also applies to the OSH organization of construction sites: the specific hazards/risks involved and the measures to be implemented require specialist knowledge of the construction process. The number and expertise of the OSH experts to be involved on a construction site will thus depend on the size of the construction site as well as the number, complexity and type of construction works running at the same time. It is difficult to establish a general rule, but every construction site should have at least one OSH expert, in-house (i.e. full-time) or external (part-time) on the construction site.

6.2 Management of subcontractors

For some years, construction enterprises (especially medium and large ones) have been moving from a traditional system of management of basic resources (labour, materials, equipment) to a system of management of subcontractors, i.e. from a system where most actual works were performed in-house using the enterprise’s own resources to a system where most or even all of the actual works are done by subcontractors (based on work performed, labour-only subcontracting or other). In other words, outsourcing in the construction industry is now in command, as it offers flexibility concerning labour needs.

Enterprises can take on more construction projects when the economy is doing well and reduce the number in periods of recession without being committed to keeping their employees on. They increasingly manage and coordinate other enterprises rather than doing actual construction.

In many countries, about 85% of the workers on construction sites are subcontractors’ workers. The subcontracting chain may have 5 levels or even more.

The number of temporary workers is estimated to be more than 60% in many countries and the number of daily hours of work may exceed ten, often with a six-day week or even more. Moreover, about 95% of the severe accidents involve subcontractors’ workers. Figure 15 summarises this (ILO, 2001b).

The growing tendency for subcontracting (in special, labour-only subcontracting, self-employment, etc.) is a reality that countries have to live with and deal with.

Figure 15 – Some facts on subcontracting in the construction industry
Figure 15 – Some facts on subcontracting in the construction industry

However, the subcontracting practices raise other issues that may compromise the safety and health of construction workers. In many countries the government and the social partners have been discussing such issues. The issues include:

  • OSH training programmes for the workers (in different languages following the globalisation of the economy);
  • information on risks that the workers face;
  • supplying collective and personal protective equipment;
  • health monitoring for all workers;
  • occupational accident insurance.

In many countries, the national laws and regulations attribute these and many other responsibilities to the employer, i.e. the person who contracted the worker. Although this works well in many situations (and industries), in the construction industry there are many cases that need more attention and clarification.

For example, when a contractor (or a subcontractor in the chain) uses labour-only subcontracting, the employer is indeed this labour-only subcontractor, and usually does not know the work their employees will do on the construction site and so is not able to identify the specific needs for training, information related to risks and safety equipment. In these cases, these labour-only enterprises are in fact employers but they do not coordinate the tasks of their employees. The solution is to clarify these issues in the contracts between the enterprises involved (contractor and labour-only contractor).

Accordingly, a question that has been discussed in many countries is: Should subcontracting be limited or controlled? A positive answer has been given to both, i.e., subcontracting has been both limited and controlled (Figure 16). However, introducing limitations to subcontracting is against the free market between private companies.

Figure 16 – Subcontracting: limited and controlled
Figure 16 – Subcontracting: limited and controlled

The limitations have been implemented in some countries on subcontracting chain, e.g. limiting it to 3 levels, with the first level being the subcontractor of the constructor or the main constructor. This is being done through the requirements in the safety and health plans for specific construction projects (usually large ones). Some countries are introducing this limitation into their national laws or regulations especially for the construction industry. On every construction site, the contractors should keep and maintain a record of all subcontractors.

Other limitations have also been set, such as a minimum number of permanent construction workers that a construction firm may employ. Many countries have already made this a condition for qualifying to become constructors instead of just contractors. In other countries, it has been introduced by a specific OSH-related law (e.g. 30%). Where this limitation is used, this percentage should be applied not only at the construction enterprise level, but also at the construction site level to avoid the concentration of the permanent workers in the same construction site, leaving other construction sites without any or just a few of them.

Independently of such limitations, the control of the successive chain of subcontracting should be always required on all construction sites (small or large) and records should be kept and maintained by the main constructor or by each constructor (if more than one constructor has a contract with the owner/client of the project). The labour inspectorate may at any time inspect the accuracy of these records.

Moreover, each employer should also keep the same records for their subcontracting chain, ready to be inspected at any time by the contractor who subcontracted him and also by the labour inspectorate, when necessary or when questions arise from inspection of those records by the main constructor or constructors.

At the construction site level, there are many ways to organise this monitoring of the subcontracting chain. A simple way to do this is through a form like the one in Figure 17, which lists all contractors and subcontractors involved in the construction site.

Figure 17 – Control of subcontractors and subcontracting chain
Figure 17 – Control of subcontractors and subcontracting chain

In this form, the following applies:

  • The reference to the employer should be referenced by levels, considering for the constructors the sequence of natural numbers (1, 2, 3, ...), the first sublevel of subcontractors as 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, etc., the second sublevel as 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc. (e.g. the reference to an employer as 1.2.3, means the subcontractor 3 of the subcontractor 2 of the constructor 1);
  • The third column refers to the person on site representing the employer;
  • The fourth column refers to the number of permanent workers (PW) and temporary workers (TW) and the percentage PW/(PW+TW);
  • The start and end dates of the intervention period on site of each employer;
  • The construction qualification of each employer depends on the national law of each country and it applies, in special, to the constructors and sub-constructors; this qualification specifies usually the type of works the employer may perform. Where applicable, the official document stating the construction qualification should be attached to this form.

The following Figure 18 may also be used as a complement of the previous one, giving a better idea through a flow chart of “who subcontracted whom”.

Figure 18 – Flow chart of the subcontracting chain
Figure 18 – Flow chart of the subcontracting chain

Whatever the process or form used, the important thing is to monitor all the issues above, and to take into account the laws, regulations and construction practice in each country.

It is also important to check the insurance against occupational accidents of the workers of each of the employers in the chain, including the self-employed workers. A sample form is shown in Figure 19.

Figure 19 – Form for controlling of the insurance covering the occupational accidents
Figure 19 – Form for controlling of the insurance covering the occupational accidents

In this form, the following applies:

  • the reference (Ref.) to the employer should be the same than the one referred in Figure 18, in view to facilitate the monitoring process in both forms;
  • the intervention (INT.) may be referred as C (constructor), SB (sub-Constructor), SC (subcontractor who is not a constructor), SW (Self-employed worker); other situations may also be used to respond to specific needs (e.g. a more detailed specification of these different stakeholders);
  • the insurance modality may be referred to as FP-WN (fixed premium with names), FP-NN (fixed premium without names), VP (variable premium); in each country these types of insurance modalities need to be adapted to accommodate the country’s insurance system;
  • the coverage may be referred as Ad (adequate) or N-Ad (Non adequate); this refers to the type of construction works covered in view of the different levels of risks of construction projects, i.e., for example, the insurance premium for a building is usually different from that for a bridge.