The hidden role of site managers: influencing construction workers’ eating habits

Dr Rebecca Loudoun

SNAPO indicators – a catchy acronym used in health circles for behavioural risk factors associated with cardiovascular and other chronic diseases: Smoking, Nutrition, Alcohol, Physical activity, and Overweight and obesity.

A team of researchers, led by WOW’s Dr Rebecca Loudoun, surveyed 186 workers on six new or refurbishing mixed residential, office and retail building sites operated by the same firm around Brisbane – 104 of whom were also interviewed individually or in focus groups over a twelve month period – as funding partner, the Office of Fair and Safe Work Queensland, seeks to make inroads in preventing cardiovascular disease in the state’s construction industry.

So why focus on Nutrition, and why in construction?

As Australia’s third highest paid industry, and with a male-dominant population, construction workers, alongside those in mining, are at most risk of perpetrating SNAPO behaviours, particularly in the areas of excessive Alcohol consumption, Smoking and Obesity. But with very little research that considers the impact of ‘project-based’ construction – work of a short-term and temporary duration, with high worker transience, time pressures underpinned by severe financial penalties, early starts, and constant, sometimes long commutes to site – on health and wellbeing, it presents unique considerations for employers and workers around their dietary habits, and views on Nutrition more generally.

Although the study’s participants saw the link between Nutrition and safety on site, the overwhelming response was that bigger health and safety concerns (and their consequences) existed which required workers’ and line managers’/ leading hands’ attention. The flow on effects of poor Nutrition for one’s mental health as a catalyst to disability, or management’s influence on workers’ food and beverage choices, was not as obvious however. Dr Loudoun explains:

“While committed senior management is seen as critical for improvements in workplace health and safety, little research exists on the role line managers (who may be the only contact a worker or subcontractor has with the principal contractor or firm) have in creating healthy environments.”

“All participants agreed that line managers do not, and should not, have any [pull] over workers’ eating habits, however it was clear that they had a critical influence. Setting the pace of work; the setup of the site like the position and amount of eating areas, their proximity to noise and dust; and leadership behaviours – that which the workers see managers themselves doing like bringing in their own lunch, chosen methods of rehydration, what they organise or allow to be served at the weekly onsite BBQs, all had an influence on workers’ choices.”

The consumption of formulated caffeine beverages (FCBs) – or energy drinks – warranted attention also, adds Rebecca:

“[Energy drinks were] common on sites. They are marketed to this [worker] demographic: young; cashed up; [those in] need of sustained energy [levels] throughout the day; and having a promised performance enhancing/ stimulant drug effect. Supplier vending machine agreements and promotional site visits boosted the availability of these drinks which have high calories, low nutritional value and no essential vitamins and minerals. But for many, particularly young workers, this was their meal.”

The team conducting this research includes Rebecca, fellow WOW member, Associate Professor Keith Townsend, and Research Fellow, Dr Katherine Markwell.

Project enquiries can directed to Dr Rebecca Loudoun: r.loudoun@griffith.edu.au or phone 07 3735 7743.