COVID-19: Construction - between a rock and a hard place

In response to the strict social distancing measures now in place across the UK, the construction industry is challenged between the need to follow Government advice so they can protect their valuable workforce but also ensuring construction workers can reach sites or projects.

Many firms in our sector currently feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, so we have tried to brake down where the construction industry currently stands amongst all of the Coronavirus chaos.

Can construction sites stay open?

Although several major construction firms have already closed all of their sites, the fact still remains that many projects have been left open. Indeed, in an update on 27 March 2020, the UK Government has not asked construction sites to close, stating: “work can continue if it is done safely”.

One of the core questions around this issue is whether construction workers can be classified as ‘essential workers’ or not.

Are construction individuals classed as essential workers?

Some construction firms have already assigned this status to their workers and are advising those travelling to or from work to state they are ‘essential workers’ if they are challenged over why they are travelling. In addition, some employers are issuing letters to staff that they can present to verify their reason for travel.

At times like this, we usually look to guidance from our respected trade bodies but, unfortunately, there are conflicting views here too.

The Hodgson view for PCA members

Property Care Association members normally deliver service into a variety of domestic and commercial properties that are occupied, but we are also reliant on new build and refurbishment on development sites. Most of our PCA members employ administrators, surveyors and site workers; so when considering if work should go on, there is no single line of advice that can be true for all!

It is clear that surveying or working inside occupied houses where householders are in isolation or are working to distance themselves from possible infection, is simply out of the question. Administrators and support staff should clearly be working from home.

At the other extreme, technicians working alone to treat invasive plants will already be working in a way that requires isolation from others. They will also be wearing PPE and RPE that they are trained and competent to use. From our perspective, we see no reason why they should not be working close to normal.

Questions regarding the ‘grey areas’?

That leaves a great deal of activity where many detect ambiguities. The position that PCA members may justifiably adopt follows the interpretation of the rules as reported by others in this article.

We agree that the Government are not asking the construction industry to stop working. They actually want us to carry on delivering service where we can do so safely. This means that all employees must observe the social distancing rules and hygiene protocols, employers must enforce appropriate operational, procedural and personal controls that protect our workers and others they may encounter and all of this must be informed by robust and well informed risk assessments.

Clean overalls every day, disposable gloves, goggles, RPE, hand washing and don’t leave the house for a week if you are feeling rough. Otherwise our message is work but work smart and work safe.

Financial help through COVID-19

Recognising the huge impact this will have on workers and firms in the sector, The PCA, FMB and other Trade Associations have called on the Government to extend the financial help available to building firms and the self-employed in order to protect the health and livelihoods of the construction industry’s workers.

Currently, the grant funding available to businesses from the Government (up to £25k) is only available to retail, leisure and hospitality firms, not construction, building and building services firms.

Obey the COVID-19 rules – Keep your distance

Where building work does continue – whether on major construction sites, smaller projects, maintenance or domestic projects – COVID-19 protection and prevention measures should be built into all aspects of risk management practices, and included in daily safety briefings and toolbox talks. All firms need to keep drumming home the need for social distancing.

This situation is likely to evolve over the coming days and weeks so it is vital firms take responsibility for keeping themselves appraised and heed new instructions relating to construction, building and maintenance work.

In the meantime, all employers are advised to check the latest Government, HSE and NHS guidance on dealing with and preventing the spread of COVID-19.

P.S.  Our thanks to Astute Insurance Solutions for pulling together the article

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