Last reviewed 22 October 2014

Andrew Christodoulou looks at the risks surrounding apprentices on construction sites.

Construction sites are dangerous places to work, as confirmed by the high rates of fatal accidents, serious injuries and ill health that occur each year. Construction sites are also the training ground for thousands of young apprentices who have set off to learn a trade or skill, often through vocational qualifications.

These young apprentices are especially vulnerable to accidents and ill health because they often have particular characteristics that make them a special risk. According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE)/Labour Force Survey statistics, young men aged 16–24 have a substantially higher risk of workplace injury than older men. The rate of workplace injury in young men is 37% higher for 16 to 19-year-olds and over 70% higher in 20 to 24-year-olds, as compared with older men. Even after allowing for different occupations and other job characteristics, young men face a 40% higher risk of workplace injury than men aged 45 to 54. Women show a less obvious link of higher rate of injury with age but the same factors of inexperience and immaturity apply as much to women as men, and the same overall affect on health and safety would be expected.

So what are the special factors that make apprentices a special risk? What are the legal requirements and how can apprentices onsite be protected?

Special factors and the law

Apprentices are a special case because they are usually young and also inexperienced compared to their older colleagues. They often do not have the physical and psychological capacity of older workers. They are often unfamiliar with common workplace risks. They sometimes do not understand or appreciate site rules, authority and procedures. Because of their age, they are often not fully developed physically and consequently, more vulnerable than older workers if exposed to hazardous substances and agents. Substances such as asbestos, which has a long latent period, have more time to take effect, and younger bodies and organs are often more vulnerable to exposure to other hazardous substances and agents. In construction, there are often behavioural aspects of apprentices that have to be taken into account; there is sometimes a reluctance to follow procedures such as wearing PPE. There is also sometimes a “macho” attitude, particularly among young men, which can lead to greatly increased risks through unsafe behaviour.

Apprentices are protected by the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, which requires employers to “ensure so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare while at work, of all employees and non-employees”. The requirement is a general one, but the fact that it is qualified by the term “so far as is reasonably practicable” means that the well-known “cost vs risk” benefit analysis must be carried out. In practice, this means that the increased risks that an apprentice may face because of their age, inexperience, immaturity and so on have to be taken into account.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also require the protection of young people including apprentices. Regulation 19 requires employers to ensure that young people who are employed are protected from risks that are a consequence of their “lack of experience, absence of awareness of existing or potential risks, or the fact that the young persons have not yet fully matured”. The regulations require employers to carry out a risk assessment before young people start work.

Common law too, requires young people to be treated in a special way. The duty in common law is owed directly by the employer to his or her employees, which means that personal and special needs must be taken into account. Common law makes it clear that greater precautions must be taken when dealing with young or inexperienced workers such as apprentices. Failure to deal with this increased risk can lead to civil claims for compensation.

Protecting apprentices in practice

Apprentices can only be adequately protected through a proper consideration of the special risks and factors and by implementing effective safeguards to protect apprentices on site. Current advice from the HSE is that if an employer already employs a young person, or has done so in the last few years, their existing risk management arrangements should be sufficient providing any new young person is of a broadly similar level of maturity and understanding, and has no particular additional needs. If employing a young person for the first time, or employing one with particular needs, an employer will need to review their risk assessments, taking into account the so-called specific special factors for young people before they start their apprenticeship.

In practice the following factors must be taken into account:

  • the potential lack of physical and psychological capacity of the apprentice

  • exposure to harmful agents such as chemicals, heat, cold or vibration (the effect of which can be accentuated by youth)

  • the apprentice’s lack of experience and training

  • a possible lack of attention and concentration

  • the role of supervision, and the correct level and type required

  • psychological factors such as attitude, which in turn can affect behaviour

  • legal requirements, codes of practice, standards and HSE guidance.

Case studies

Earlier this year, and as reported by the HSE, a 16-year-old apprentice had a lucky escape from serious injury after falling 4m through a fragile roof light at a farm in Yorkshire. The teenage worker suffered bad bruising to his back but no broken bones after his fall through the roof light on a barn where solar panels were being installed by an electrical contractor. It was only his third day at work. At the time, the 16-year-old was on the ground tidying up when he was asked by the other apprentice if he would fetch a tool. Without thinking to put a harness on, the youngster went onto the roof, stumbled and trod on a partially-covered roof light which gave way, sending him crashing through to land on the concrete floor below. His employer was prosecuted and fined.

After the hearing, HSE Inspector Julian Franklin said: “This young man certainly had a close shave. Falling from height remains one of the biggest causes of death and major injury.

“It is particularly important to ensure that vulnerable young people, new to the working environment, are given very close supervision, clear instructions and not exposed to risks that they may not be able to envisage.”

A Dutch building firm has also been fined after an apprentice fractured his skull falling more than 6m from a scaffold during construction of a new Leisure Centre in West Bromwich.

And a 17-year-old labourer from south-west London had a narrow escape after surviving a 4m fall through a hole in a loft, with only cuts and bruises. His employer, More Than Lofts Ltd of Worcester Park, Sutton, suffered a financial penalty when it was prosecuted (3 September 2014) and fined by the HSE for safety failings that led to the incident.

The way forward

Apprentices working on construction sites have the right to be properly protected and deserve a fair chance as they start their working lives. This will only be achieved if their special vulnerability to risk is considered and dealt with by employers and those managing construction sites. Only by positive action will potential tragedy be prevented.

It is also important to recognise that apprentices are the role models of tomorrow. The way forward is to invest in the health and safety of apprentices now and reap the rewards in the future.