Andrew Christodoulou looks at the health and safety issues associated with migrant workers in construction.

Introduction

While there are no precise figures for the number of migrant workers currently in the UK workforce, it is clear that their number has grown recently and is likely to increase further in the future. With a skills shortage in a number of sectors, expansion of the EU, and economic difficulties in many parts of the EU, more and more migrant workers are coming to the UK to find work. A significant proportion of these workers will end up working on construction sites.

The presence of migrant workers in the workforce presents special problems and issues with regard to health and safety, which if not properly and effectively dealt with, could lead to unacceptable risks and, potentially, to tragedy.

So what are these special risks and how can they be successfully managed? What does the law require?

The special risks

Research published as part of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Inquiry into the underlying causes of accidents in construction revealed that HSE Inspectors repeatedly identified several factors making foreign or migrant workers potentially at greater risk than British-born workers. These include the following.

Language skills

Migrant workers are not always able to understand English proficiently; many do not wish to admit to their limitations in English for fear of losing their job or not being employed in the first place. Therefore, health and safety training and instruction in English may not be effective, whether such communication is verbal or written.

For example, where safety instruction and emergency signs are in English and the migrant does not read English, significant increased risks may be present. Often, employers do not check language skills on recruitment and very few use translators.

Inexperience or lack of understanding of UK health and safety standards

Many migrant workers come from countries where health and safety standards are lower than here. While many migrant workers may be skilled tradespersons, they may not be competent enough in health and safety to work safely on construction sites in the UK.

Cultural differences

Often cultural differences exist, which may affect a worker’s perception of risk and approach to health and safety in the workplace. Many migrant workers come from countries where taking risks in the workplace is “part of the job”. Often, basic health and safety measures, such as fire evacuation procedures are not appreciated. Many come from countries where there are few rights for employees, including those related to health and safety, and many do not understand or appreciate the rights they have when working in the UK.

In a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) research report, RR502 (2008), a Polish worker apparently remarked that: “they [Polish workers] don’t have any training… For them to get training, it means the company have to spend the money on them and they cannot start spending money on them”.

In some cases, migrant workers would not admit to not understanding the training for fear of losing, or not getting, their job: “sometimes if they give information… me …every time say yes, yes… because people scared if I don’t understand, they sack you…”

Migrant workers and the law

The Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 requires all employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees and this extends to migrant workers (even if they are working in the UK illegally). Section 3 of the Act requires employers to take care of those they do not employ. The employment relationship for migrant workers can sometimes be complicated. Where agencies and labour providers, etc are used, they will also have responsibilities under the Act to ensure the health and safety of migrant workers.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require the assessment of work-related risks and this must include consideration of migrant workers. Control measures must be implemented to deal with those risks identified by the assessment.

Of particular importance are the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 (CDM). Irrespective of the employment relationship with migrant workers, clients and principal contractors have a duty to take care of migrant workers while they are on site. Clients have a duty to provide pre-construction information and this may include the need to consider the special risks of using migrant workers on the project.

Managing the risk for migrant workers

The following headings can be used as a format for protecting migrant workers.

Training

Migrant workers may be completely unfamiliar with workplace risks and may have never done the sort of work they are required to do, so induction training must be clear and simple. Employers in construction can use multi-lingual supervisors and provide translated instructions and guidance into the first language for their workers. Inductions, toolbox talks and training materials are becoming available in a range of languages.

Communication

Migrant workers may have problems communicating in English. Communication must be clear and effective, for example, by providing information in other languages, visual formats or simple English if necessary. Workers must understand what is required of them and know how, and with whom, they can raise concerns.

Competence

Before migrant workers start work, checks must be made on the occupational qualifications or skills needed for the job; skill levels gained from overseas qualifications (eg for forklift driving) must be assessed. Workers with limited English language skills can obtain a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card. The ConstructionSkills health, safety and environment test can be taken in a variety of languages or with the help of an interpreter. This test is a robust and independent assurance of basic health and safety knowledge.

ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council for the construction industry, has developed web-based teaching materials to help overseas workers. It also provides construction employers with information and support tools to help ensure that any overseas workers they employ are properly qualified and competent.

Attitude to health and safety

Migrant workers may have different expectations about health and safety responsibilities. They must understand the importance of health and safety on site and how it is managed, and that effective supervision can address any weaknesses in understanding instruction and training. Some migrant workers may assume accidents are their own fault, or just inevitable, which can affect commitment to reducing and controlling risks.

Conclusions

The following prosecution involved an accident to a migrant worker.

A Kent building maintenance company was fined in December 2013 for safety failings after a migrant worker suffered life-changing injuries when he fell through a fragile garage roof at a site in Bexley.

While clearing moss and debris from a roof with a colleague, the fragile corrugated sheeting gave way and he fell nearly three metres to the concrete floor below.

The 39-year-old man suffered brain injuries and was left partially deaf following the fall. The worker, a Bulgarian national, also fractured his shoulder and lost his peripheral vision as a result of the incident. While being treated in hospital, he contracted MRSA and has not yet been able to return to work.

Migrant workers are at special risk while working on construction sites and the special steps outlined in this article must be taken to protect them. Anything less will lead to accidents and court appearances.

Last reviewed 6 March 2014