The Work Ability of Construction Workers in Relation to Individual and Work-related Factors: Strategies for Sustaining the Construction Workforce in Hong Kong

關於香港建造業工人的工作能力與其個人和工作相關因素關係的研究 - 保持建造業人力資源的戰略研究

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date16 Aug 2017


The shortage in Hong Kong’s construction workforce is expected to exacerbate in the coming decades because of the rapidly aging population, drastic decrease in the number of skilled and experienced construction workers, and continuous development of infrastructure projects by the public and private sectors, such as “The Ten Major Infrastructure Projects.” These projects have been rolling out in phases and placing heavy demands on labor. The total number of valid registered construction workers in Hong Kong as of March 2017 was 437,271. Approximately 42.84% of these registered workers were aged over 50, showing a relatively old working population in the industry. These workers are skilled and will retire sometime within the next 10 years when they reach the age of 60. Therefore, long-term strategies must be implemented to sustain this valuable workforce and to prevent premature dropouts due to occupational disability.

Construction workers are commonly exposed to higher risks of work-related disabilities and deterioration in physical capacity because of the heavy and physically demanding nature of their work, as well as the awkward and repeated postures required. Their physical capacity also deteriorates with the aging process. Such negative effects to the workers’ health will significantly increase the likelihood of their early dropout from the workforce. Hence, the concept of work ability measurement has been increasingly studied and evaluated in recent years to provide sound evidence for the development of pragmatic and realistic worksite intervention programs, as well as to prevent construction workers from prematurely quitting the workforce due to work-related disability. Work ability is the interaction result of the workers and their work, as well as a reflection of their health, competence, values (i.e., social and moral), and work. Determining the work ability of a worker can therefore predict “how good the worker is at present and in the near future, as well as how able he/she is to do his/her job with respect to work demands, health, and mental resources.”

This study measures the work ability of Hong Kong construction workers by means of the Work Ability Index (WAI), which was developed by the Finnish researchers Juhani Ilmarinen and Kaija Tuomi (Tuomi et al., 1997, Ilmarinen et al., 1997). WAI has been extensively used to assess work ability in workplace health prevention, as well as occupational health and re-integration. Given the importance of work ability measurement, the effects of different individual and work-related factors on the work ability of construction workers were examined. A WAI model showing different direct and indirect effects among the factors was then developed to facilitate our understanding of the potential factors affecting the work ability of workers, as well as to formulate a pragmatic and realistic intervention program to retain Hong Kong’s construction workforce.

The study findings show that poor sleep quality, having a smoking habit, and lack of physical exercise were the lifestyle factors that adversely affect the workers’ health, which subsequently lead to poor work ability. High physical and psychological demands were the work-related factors that adversely affect work ability. Low levels of job control and social support from work can also lower work ability through the mediation effect of health-related factors. Nevertheless, a high level of individual competence at work can improve work ability. An intervention program that incorporates the study findings was developed to maximize the utilization of the results. Different steps for the development of the intervention program were clearly demonstrated with reference to the intervention mapping approach, which attempts to promote healthy behavior among construction workers, lower their work demands, and increase their influence and support in the workplace.

This study is the first of its type to examine the work ability of Hong Kong’s construction workers. This study is necessary and timely because an unprecedented manpower shortage in the construction industry is likely to happen in the coming decades. This study also shows the determinants affecting the work ability of Hong Kong’s construction workers. The results will guide the formulation of suitable intervention programs to improve their work ability and cope with the shortage in the construction workforce. Hong Kong can continue to thrive with a sustainable supply of manpower in the construction industry only if the work ability of the construction workforce is maintained.