The construction industry continues to face a number of unique challenges from the guidance and restrictions introduced to manage the Coronavirus pandemic. The Government has encouraged all businesses, including those involved in construction, to remain open during the lockdown, provided the guidance from Public Health England (PHE) including social distancing is followed where possible. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has made clear on its website and on social media that duty holders must comply with their existing duties to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees at work and the more prescriptive duties found in Health and Safety Regulations. The HSE has gone further and stated that where it finds employers not taking action to comply with relevant PHE guidance to control public health risks, it will consider a range of actions to improve and control workplace risks which could include shutting down operations.
Many larger constructions companies and house builders closed sites following the lockdown in March but work has continued on others, particularly on smaller developments. Construction sites present particular problems for those implementing the PHE guidance. They are high risk workplaces where social distancing is far from straightforward. Site safety typically replies upon close teamwork and following standard procedures. The Government has produced advice specific to many industry sectors including construction, and the Construction Leadership Council has provided further guidance to the industry. The latest advice was released on 15 April 2020. The construction trade press has commented this advice is not being followed or enforced consistently by the industry. This is perhaps not surprising considering the different nature and size of construction companies and construction projects, with each facing different challenges often depending upon the particular involvement on site.
Construction sites can continue to operate if work is undertaken in accordance with social distancing and other guidelines, wherever possible. Where this not possible, consideration should be given to whether a particular activity needs to continue. If it does, mitigating steps should be taken.
- Staff should be advised to wash their hands using soap and water for 20 seconds, especially after blowing their nose, sneezing and coughing, on arrival at work, before and after eating, after using public transport and when they arrive home.
- Work should be planned to minimise contact between workers and those on site should be advised to keep 2 metres apart if possible.
- On site teams should be as small as possible and kept together and not sent to different sites.
- Workers should wash their hands before getting into enclosed machinery with others and wash their hands every time they get out. Windows should be kept open to allow ventilation.
- Stairs should be used in place of lifts or hoists. Where lifts and hoists must be used, capacity should be reduced to avoid congestion.
- Staff should be reminded daily to come into work only if they are well and no one in the household is self-isolating.
The Construction Leadership Council has put further flesh on the bones of the Government advice and given consideration to specific areas of construction work including the following :-
- Where possible, workers should travel to site alone using their own transport. If transport is to be shared, journeys should be shared with the same individuals and the minimum number of people at one time. Passengers should face away from each other if possible.
- There should be good ventilation and the vehicle should be cleansed regularly using gloves and standard cleaning procedures with particular emphasis on handles and other areas where passengers may touch surfaces.
- Access and egress points should be carefully controlled. All non-essential visitors should be prevented from entering the site and sites should consider staggering start and finish times to reduce congestion and contact. Access points should be planned to enable social distancing with signage and floor marking.
- Workers should wash their hands for 20 seconds using soap and water when entering and leaving sites.
- Numbers should be limited at site inductions.
- Regular breaks should be scheduled for hand washing, ensuring there are adequate supplies of soap and fresh water
- Works should be planned to avoid close working where possible.
- Sites should remind the workforce at daily briefings of the specific control measures to protect them, their colleagues, families and the UK population.
- If it is not possible to work while managing a 2 metre distance and if it is decided work should continue, an assessment of the risk should be undertaken using a hierarchy of controls and against the Governments specific guidance. The use of RPE should be considered where close contact between workers in unavoidable.
- Further advice is given on first aid and emergency response. The primary responsibility is to preserve life and first aid should be administered if required and until the emergency services attend. When planning site activities, the provision of adequate first aid must be agreed between relevant parties on site. Consideration must be given to potential delays in emergency services’ response, re-scheduling of high risk works or providing additional competent first aid or trauma resources.
- Enhanced cleaning procedures should be in place across the site, particularly in communal areas and at touch points including taps and washing facilities, toilet facilities, door handles and push plates and handrails on stairs and corridors.
In summary, construction work must be properly planned to allow social distancing where possible and enable workers to follow PHE guidance. Where social distancing is not possible and the work needs to proceed, mitigating measures should be put in place following government and industry guidance. Construction workers must be kept informed through regular tool box talks of all Government and PHE guidance on social distancing and other measures to protect their own safety and the safety of others. Contact between construction workers must be limited wherever possible and washing facilities provided.
Many larger housebuilders are now planning to resume work on construction sites after closing in March. Those sites that now are re-opening will need to produce detailed site operating protocols developed in compliance with social distancing requirements. Existing risk assessments and safe operating procedures will need to be reviewed and revised. Construction work will present unique challenges in the current climate, but it is clear the HSE will continue to investigate incidents and take enforcement action for breaches of existing health and safety legislation and where it considers employers are not managing the particular risks surrounding Coronavirus. The success or otherwise of guidance to manage the risk presented by the pandemic remains to be seen.