Construction for Beginners from an Occupational Health Point of View

If you have been in construction for years, you will not enjoy reading this. I’ve written this in response to so many questions and I thought this article is ideal for those who are new to construction or just wondering why it is so different.

To make the explanation simpler, I’ll use Tesco’s wanting to build a new store to illustrate how it works.

Here goes.

Construction Projects – A new Tesco

Tesco’s decide they want a new supermarket so, (after buying the land, planning permission, etc.) hire an architect to put the ideas together. They hire people to do the job because Tesco does not have their own builders or designers.

Tesco put together a contract containing everything they want from the building. The list includes the size of the store to life span, car parking spaces, customer toilets, and so on. Tesco advertises the specification and, if a building company has worked with Tesco before, they may be invited to tender.

The Bids are In

Tesco, in due course, gets bids from construction companies to build the new store. The client is looking for the best price usually, although the quality is also considered. Construction companies will produce a bid for building the new Tesco and with a price for delivering and a time frame. The client chooses which building contractor on the basis of the tender bid.

Tesco is called the ‘client’ (a legal term under the Construction Design and Management Regulations (CDM)) ( and pays the price for all the work.

Meanwhile, the company that won the contract by becoming the preferred bidder becomes the principal contractor (another legal term under CDM) for the contract. Here is where the problems begin.

The Principal Contractor

Usually, the principal contractor has to use other tradespeople to do small pieces of the build, like landscape gardening for the grounds or a plumber for all the pipe work; they need diggers and ground investigation teams too. But as some tradesmen are only used on a small piece of work or for a limited time, they are not usually part of the principal contractors’ workforce – you can image having a gardener waiting around for the building to be finished before they can get in and plant those wonderful spiky shrubs. So many other jobs are up for tender bids by the principal contractor, not the client, who now steps back, taking on an auditing and supervisory role, and lets the PC be in control.

Sub Contracting

This second set of tendering for contracts is quite complex calling for project managers to coordinate everyone on behalf of the principal contractor. A small Tesco’s would be quite easy to manage, but think how complex it might be for say the Olympic stadium?

The contract between each party (client, principal contractor and subcontractors) will have costs and delivery dates embedded and penalties if any of they miss the agreed targets. So everyone is working to clear deadlines. If things go wrong then deadlines may be missed and part of the monies may be withheld if the project overruns or not built to the agreed specification.

When the project finishes and the shiny Tesco store is finally handed over to the client as a ready to open supermarket, the PC and all the subbies, pack up and move to another project.

The Workforce

The complication in terms of health and safety and where construction is massively different from other industries is that most workers, the bricklayers, plant drivers, scaffolders, ground investigation, electricians, welders and visiting lorry drivers are NOT directly employed by the client or the PC. Their employer is usually elsewhere or the visiting workers are self-employed. There can also be sub, subcontractors called the tiers of construction.

The groups of workers have to work together and help each other. Usually, it all works well and done so for many years – the problem occurs when the subcontractors or self-employed are asked to comply with a part of the stipulations from the Principal Contractor. Now the Health and Safety at Work Act comes into play.

Health and Safety Issues

Let’s say, for example, that the PC has written in the contract that each worker should have a full health check before coming on site.

Joe is a lorry driver who is delivering some bricks, he is only on the site for a couple of hours. Should he have a full medical? If so, who pays? Can you imagine how much Joe would have to pay out on each site/visit? What happens if he fails the medical? What if he doesn’t have time for a medical check? By the time the PC or agent has investigated, Joe is on his way to the next site. And, things like this happen all the time – some much more serious.

Managing Construction Workers

So the big issue in construction is in managing the sites and all the different contractors. You have new workers on site every day. Self-employed workers may not comply with health rules. Many are afraid of admitting health issues.  Others won’t tell the truth about their health (and safety) and the PC has no history to look back on. But what if Joe has left his spectacles at home and be blind as a bat without them?

Add the huge numbers of foreign and agency workers and twenty-four-hour working and you see the problem. Some don’t even understand the risks and some don’t even care. PC’s, as well as doing the construction, have to make sure everyone on the site is fit. And it protects the neighbourhood from noise and dust from say, taking soil samples.

How it Works Sometimes

At the Olympics, the PC provided induction, drug and alcohol testing and full medical provision for all workers. But it was expensive. Few construction companies can afford that, especially when you don’t know how many people will be on site.

At Crossrail, each contractor had access to occupational health services compliant with both SEQOHS and Constructing Better Health standards, but getting this established was fraught with legal and cost implications.


Tesco’s has its store; the PC packs up and moves on to the next job to start the process all over again. Maybe its Thames Tideway or a new road.


Do you see the problems occupational health and safety professionals have for trying to protect these workers? They may not have time, the inclination or even understand why it is necessary to check their health.  Also, if you work on loads of sites, how on earth can a worker take it all seriously.  Health and safety matters fizzle out the nearer you understand the supply chain. Unfortunately, those on the lower tiers hearing distorted messages or perhaps no messages at all.

If you are thinking of working in construction or maybe you’ve just started out; these issues face us all.

Have you got a cunning plan to make construction workers more healthy?  Or something you need adding to help construction for beginners? I’d love to hear your views.

Further Advice and Resources On Construction for Beginners

Adapted extract from my new book -Manager’s Guide to Health and Wellbeing in the Construction Industry’, coming soon.  Let me know if you would like to be a beta reader for the first draft by filling in the comments box.

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