The ‘hidden illness’ and its threat to construction

IT is estimated that 199,100 diabetics work within the UK construction industry. The illness presents great risks to daily life, with black outs, impaired vision, impaired balance and fatigue being some of the symptoms. Despite such risks, Diabetes UK claims that a recent survey of theirs shows the illness is not taken seriously in Britain.

“If diabetes-related symptoms contribute to a workplace accident and an employer has taken no steps to assess and reduce the risk, then the employer will commit a criminal offence and face a significant fine,” explained Paul Whitehouse, director of The Diabetes Safety Organisation, a company founded to aid companies in the regulation of the condition within their workplace.

“If there’s an accident on a construction site it is investigated by the HSE (Health and Safety Executive), police and so on. If there’s an accident on site and it is deemed to be as a result of diabetes, then the first thing the HSE would ask is ‘what policies do you have in place?’’ he added.

The Diabetes Safety Organisation was launched earlier this year, with the intention of providing courses and modules to companies of all sizes to help manage and understand the condition of diabetes in their workplace, and to also provide accreditation that reasonable steps have been taken to put measures in place to support safe work practice for diabetics.

“I think the problem is that with a lot of companies we’ve spoken to, it’s not the fact that they’re not interested – I just don’t think they appreciate the issue and problems surrounding diabetes; I think that’s part of the problem,” Paul added. “So, it’s probably an unintentional ignorance that they’re not aware of how serious the condition is, and how many people it effects.

“I don’t think a lot of companies appreciate the impact and the sheer number of people that are affected by diabetes. The realisation is that it’s going to get worse – at the moment there are something like 4.6 million people (in the UK) with diabetes, and it costs the NHS in excess of £10 billion a year. A lot of that – £8 billion we suspect – would be avoidable if people changed their lifestyle.”

Paul said he believes it to be “hugely important” for construction companies to have a system in place for diabetes, with one problem being the fact it is often a “hidden epidemic” that creeps up on people who are perhaps unaware of the symptoms associated with the illness.

Currently, the courses are provided to the Clugston Group, Vertikal and CPA (Construction Products Association), as well as various safety netting companies. Despite it still being early days, Paul says that they are in discussions with three ‘substantial’ construction companies regarding diabetes and the risks it poses.

The digitally accessible courses last from between 15-20 minutes and are targeted towards all levels of staff – with specific modules for senior management, HR and ordinary site workers. There is also a tailor-made course available for smaller organisations to ensure the correct legal and health and safety steps are taken when employing and managing casual labourers. 

As well as this, The Diabetes Safety Organisation work alongside Gowling WLG, an international law firm, who look at the litigation side in companies complying with the health and safety act.

The routinely high turnovers of staff in construction companies can mean it is hard for employers and management to properly keep track of all employees.  Rather than screenings of staff, The Diabetes Safety Organisation advocates proper education through their courses so that at all levels of the organisation there is an understanding of correct protocol in regard to diabetes.  If the illness is understood, then symptoms can be spotted in suffering colleagues unaware of their condition and the possibility of safety on site being compromised can be eliminated. 

“There’s a number of risks: sudden loss of consciousness; impaired awareness; impaired concentration; impaired balance or coordination and increased risk of depression – we know that mental health in construction sites has been well documented recently and I think a lot of companies are looking at that (mental health) very, very seriously – we know that there are direct links with diabetes and mental health; if someone has diabetes it will increase the risk of depression and so on,” Paul said.

Diagnosed diabetics on high levels of medication are required by the DVLA to check blood sugar levels no more than two hours before driving, and then every two hours into the journey. However, risks are still present to those not on medication.

“There will be undiagnosed workers with diabetes driving all manner of plant and operating machinery who will not be testing. They may have an impairment due to the undiagnosed condition with loss of sensation in their feet, for example,” Paul added.