You employ more disabled people than you think

Disabled people can and do work in construction but often their disability is not recognised and they do not get the right support – that has to change.  Back in 2018, I took part in a panel discussion at a construction industry event. I quoted an Employer Skills Survey statistic which said that around 50% of the construction sector were worried about skills shortages. One of the other panelists – who was from the sector himself – responded by saying “the other 50% are deluding themselves”.

Fast forward four years and the situation is even more acute. We know from our Construction Network that with the loss of a migrant European workforce post Brexit, both skilled and unskilled workers are at a premium. Companies need effective recruitment strategies to attract in new talent, but they also need to retain the talent that already exists within their organisations.

When it comes to retention, understanding the impact of acquired disability on the construction workforce is particularly important. Contrary to popular belief, most disabilities are not present from birth. The vast majority (83%) are actually acquired while a person is in work, and the likelihood of acquiring a disability increases with age.

The vast majority  of disabilities are acquired while a person is in work, and the likelihood of acquiring a disability increases with age.

With the aging workforce reported as one of the most pressing issues facing the sector today, there will already be many colleagues who are working with a disability or industrial injury, which may affect their physical, sensory or mental health. Co-workers may not necessarily be aware that a colleague has a disability – over 90% of disabilities are not immediately visible.

Understanding disability

Sadly, there will also be those, who despite their skills and experience, have fallen out of the sector as well. While there have been diversity initiatives in the sector these have generally focused on gender. Anecdotal evidence suggests that disability has taken a backseat due to a deep-rooted misunderstanding that suggests that disabled people have no place on a construction site. A message which is both unhelpful to the industry and to disabled people and also untrue.

Official figures show that around 9% of workers in construction have a disability. Yet, we know from our members in the construction sector that a lot of workers have long-term injuries and conditions that they have not officially shared with their employer, so it is likely that the number is much higher.

Many on site workers work through injuries, aches and pains. At a policy level, this highlights the need for sick pay reform

So what needs to change? A huge part of this is culture. Those working and advising in construction have cited an over-reliance in the sector on “clinical” language when talking about general health, as well as mental health. One of our members said this is partly about “keeping up the bravado” in a male-centric working environment. At Business Disability Forum, we hear from the sector that many on site workers work through injuries, aches and pains. At a policy level, this highlights the need for sick pay reform, particularly for manual workers.

So, if your employees won’t tell you if they are struggling, what can you do as a manager? Knowing your workforce is key. Look out for signs that someone appears to be struggling or just doesn’t seem “themselves” – perhaps attendance patterns change or there are differences in performance or in communication, with someone being quieter and more withdrawn than usual, or conversely, louder or argumentative. Then, rather than jumping to conclusions, the ability for managers to step back and think “is there something else going on?” and then the confidence to have that conversation with the employee can be the difference between someone getting the support they need and falling out of the workforce.

Physical accessibility is of course very important too. Many of our construction sector members are working hard to make sites accessible to disabled customers, and that of course benefits employees too. Advances in technology are also such that an increasing number of roles such as engineering can be done remotely – technology means that wheelchair users can work in the mining industry so why not construction?

Redeployment and adjustments

As in other sectors, we also see a lack of awareness of redeployment as a reasonable adjustment. Yet so often a few simple changes to a role – or a different role altogether – could make all the difference.

An anecdote: in the summer of 2020 we had a loft conversion. We hired a local family firm to do the work for us. Part way through, our project manager told us that one of his best builders was returning to work after a hernia operation and that he also had a bad back. He then told me that this builder was an excellent tiler, a very skilled job. So, our project manager had assigned him to do the tiling work on our job and all the other jobs the firm was running. And I thought: that is redeployment as a reasonable adjustment! It could even be considered job carving. It can be as simple as that and I suspect that many construction companies are making small tweaks to roles every day without ever having heard of the term “reasonable adjustments”.

Adjustments may also need making when someone begins a role, so finding out what’s needed and making those changes up front is essential. Recently, I heard about a young man with a learning disability who got a job on a building site. He was very physically strong but couldn’t read numbers – so when one of the team asked him for a “number 9 screw” he couldn’t do it. They hit upon colour coding the boxes so instead said “bring me a red” which worked for him – and for them. Such a simple solution but probably the difference between him keeping his job or not.

In any team, every person counts. With skills at a premium, now is the time to make sure you value, support, and retain, everyone in your workforce.

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum