The building and construction industry in Australia has delivered its best ever result in terms of workplace safety in almost 15 years of records, indicating that the sector is making steady progress toward the goal of eliminating avoidable injuries.

Based on data from a survey of adults in around 35,000 households around the country, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that throughout 2013/14, 52,300 people involved with the sector experienced a work-related injury.

That number is down from around 56,900 in the Bureau’s previous most recently conducted survey in 2009/10 and represents an injury rate per thousand people employed (around 54.75) that was better than any of the rates recorded in any of the four surveys the ABS has performed in this area since the inaugural survey in 2000.

Across all industries, the most common forms of injuries were sprains and strains, followed by chronic joint or muscle conditions and open cut wounds. The most common causes of injury were lifting, pulling and pushing, followed by collisions with objects or vehicles and falls on the same level.

Specific data for construction was not given, but Safe Work Australia statistics indicate that the most common injuries in the building sector are body stressing (muscular stress) along with slips, trips and falls and collisions with moving objects.

Safety Journey director Michelle Farley welcomed the latest data, adding that attitudes and practices within the sector had progressed in a number of areas, including a greater willingness to talk openly about issues such as mental health as well as an increasing understanding of the value of ‘near-miss’ reporting.

“If I think back to 2009 and look at mental health, for example, five years ago we just weren’t talking about that the way we are now, particularly in an industry like construction which is obviously male dominated,” Farley said. “So I think the willingness to discuss and be open about things and not necessarily see them as a weakness is certainly contributing to the reduction in injury and illness.

“And I think the recognition of the value of near-miss reporting is important as well. A near miss is like an injury waiting to happen. If you can investigate and talk about it, you might be able to put measures in place to make sure it doesn’t become something that does happen.”

While Farley acknowledged that any improvement in safety should be recognised and celebrated, she says a comparison of the percentage reduction in injuries which occurred in construction since the previous ABS report in 2009/10 (around eight per cent) with that across the overall economy (16.5 per cent) suggests that the rate of improvement within the building sector has been slower than that across industry in general.

She also cautions that the ABS data does not provide any indication about the severity of injuries that are occurring, and notes that in her own practice she was seeing fewer of the less severe types of injuries over recent years and a higher proportion of more severe and less frequently occurring injuries.

Asked how safety could be further improved, Farley said many companies had robust systems in place but would be well served by looking at aspects that relate to human error. This is often difficult area to approach as it sometimes gives the impression that it assigns blame, but an important area as much of the way we perform routine tasks is influenced by subconscious decision making.

“I think the next step is starting to get to that human error discussion,” she said.

“A robust safety management system and procedures will get us a certain way down the path toward eliminating harm and most major companies are a fair way down that path. But really the next step is saying ‘ok, we’ve got all of this great stuff, (but) the work is still being done by human beings who have emotions and subconscious things decision making processes as well as good and bad days. How can we start to learn about ourselves and what might drive our behaviour (conscious or otherwise) so that we can help ourselves to be safer and help our behaviours to be safer?’”