Risk Assessments in a global pandemic - a biologist's perspective

There is a fascinating (for me anyway) debate raging in our industries right now and it involves the rights and wrongs of local and collective decisions to embrace the opportunity to work in the middle of what is still a ‘lockdown’ situation.

There is clear Government advice so the issue is not one of morality or accountability. If you decide to undertake work for a client and can tick all the boxes within the guidelines, it could be argued that you have exercised reasonable care with respect to your duties under HASAWA 1974 and the various Regulations thereunder. But this is no ordinary Risk Assessment we are talking about here!

Two important challenges for the construction industry

From my viewpoint as a biologist now working in the construction industry, I see two important challenges for most of those involved in construction trades:

  1. This is a pathogenic biological hazard (for which most of your risk assessment models may not be well adapted)
  2. There is an idiosyncratic element – no two people will respond in exactly the same way (from virtually symptom-free to fatalities).

How adaptable is your Risk Assessment model?

Construction work does not often involve considerations about pathogenic organisms so you should probably start with a fresh page in your H&S Manual for this one!

For those of you fortunate enough to have the support of a professional Safety Advisor it is likely they can provide you with an off-the-peg template to cover Coronavirus hazards and risks, but if you need to adopt/adapt an existing risk assessment from your archive here’s a few simple ‘pointers’:

  • The HAZARD is ‘High’ or ‘Very High’ if your scale allows for it (due to both the symptoms/consequences and the infectiousness), but not higher than it is when you are sitting in your ‘isolated’ home
  • The Risk is more problematic. How do you assess the risk of something you can’t see or smell and which may or may not be present at all?! You can’t, but its somewhat immaterial since the hazard category means we want to take a precautionary approach anyway, even if the risk (of exposure) is ‘low’ (which, in general, it probably is)

A simple guide to PPE

The next step is deciding what to do about it and this is where the Government’s (and WHO’s) advice comes in useful; its prescriptive and fairly flexible. In essence, apart from social distancing and personal hygiene measures, what you want to know is what, if any, PPE is required. Here’s my simple guide:

Gloves, yes definitely! Latex gloves if you have them are fine, primarily to avoid unnecessary contact with surfaces which have not been or can not be sterilised. That is, not needed when driving the van or touching surfaces not exposed to human contact for over 72 hours!

Mask, sometimes! But remember the WHO guidelines which are that they are only considered beneficial if people are infected and showing symptoms such as coughing OR are caring for infected or vulnerable people. This is fortunate because the next problem is, if a mask is deemed necessary, what sort of mask and where can I get them?

The science (100s of studies on thousands of front-line care workers) tells us that anything other than a bespoke medical-grade mask is unlikely to provide any protection and worse, could give false confidence. In the final analysis perhaps the human psychological impact of masks is more important than if they actually do any good, and you should allow your staff to choose when and if they want to use them and what type (as long as they are face-fit tested). The article in New Scientist may be useful – ‘Do face masks work?’

Exposed to the risk for some time to come

One of the most difficult aspects of a COVID-19 risk assessment is that if someone becomes infected it may be extremely serious, or not at all. So, we all need to do everything we can to avoid infection in the first place so we never find out which we (or your staff) will be! But is that realistic? Unless the virus peters-out of its own accord (nobody thinks that is likely at the moment) we will all be exposed to a risk of infection for some time to come.

Visiting supermarkets or a pharmacy is probably making sure that most of the UK population has already been exposed to the virus, assuming they were not already prior to ‘lockdown’ and it may yet be found that, for the majority, their own immune system is able to cope with the virus fairly easily (asymptomatic).

But until epidemiologists have a lot more data upon which to base their advice to the government it remains the case that the simplest piece of good advice to everyone is to protect those in your family/community/workforce that you think may be at higher risk of a severe impact (essentially those above 60 and/or with compromised immune systems or chronic respiratory challenges e.g. COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, asthma etc).

Our message is ‘be cautious but be confident’

I hope some of the above is helpful even though I don’t claim to be qualified as a Safety Consultant. The closest analogy I can think of, i.e. a pathogenic risk that some of our members may have faced, is the ‘bird nest paradox’.

This is where contractors have to decide whether it is possible to remove bird’s nests from roof spaces safely using standard protocols for working in dusty environments (infection risk, particularly that which affects the lungs) or whether it is a ‘job for the experts’ (pest controllers have more specialist equipment, breathing apparatus)?

Actually, truth be told, COVID-19 is much easier to deal with from a risk-control perspective but the hazard is not so localised, so we are encouraging the adoption of general vigilance measures rather than anything so specific.

In summary, the message I’d like to convey if you still have any doubts is: “be cautious but be confident”. It is possible to operate safely without compromising the wellbeing of your workforce and you should embrace the opportunity to do so (having done the homework!).

For further information, call us on 01480 400000.

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