With the threat of Coronavirus receding in most parts of the UK, Boris Johnson has urged the nation to “Build, build, build!” But anyone running a construction site post-Covid 19 faces a whole host of new challenges, the most important of which is how to protect employees, workers and visitors from the risk of infection.
If you don’t make efforts to reduce the risk of Coronavirus being passed around your site, you will be breaking the law. The Health and Safety Executive has re-started its inspections and is asking questions about Coronavirus. So, what should you be doing to convince a visiting inspector that you are on top of things? (Links to detailed information at the bottom of this blog, and a precis below).
1. Rethink everything
Look at the way your project is organised with fresh eyes. Even with the ‘safe’ social distance reduced from 2m to 1m-plus from 4 July, it is prudent to consider how each piece of work can be carried out with as little close working as possible.
You may need to re-plan the order of activities so that there’s no chance of trades working on top of each other. The fewer people on site at any one time, the better. It could be worth extending the working day so that quiet works can be carried out in the evening to avoid people getting too close to each other. The smaller and more enclosed the space, the greater the risk of infection passing between people.
Risk assessments and method statements – working out how things can be done in the safest way possible – are helpful, and they also prove to the HSE or an insurance company that you are doing things in a responsible way. These documents don’t have to be complicated or time-consuming to produce; there are free templates online (one of which is available from C-Link).
Site layout needs some thought. A separate entry and exit are ideal if possible. Until 4 July, the advice was to keep canteens and other communal closed. The latest guidance from the Construction Leadership Council Communal says that canteens can open, with various special measures in place. Some contractors have created outdoor ‘canteens’, but that’s only possible with a big enough site compound. Others ask workers to eat in their vehicles. Staggering lunch hours might help too.
What about PPE? Should everyone be issued with masks and face visors? The general rule is that PPE should be a last resort after every effort has been to remove or lessen the risk. The same applies here. If people have to work close together, then respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is needed.
Some contractors are providing all their staff with visors because it makes people feel safer, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if it lulls people into a false sense of security. Other contractors have reported that the combination of face mask and eye protection causes safety glasses to mist up, which introduces another safety hazard to the equation. Again, it’s a question of intelligently assessing the risk – and clearly communicating what you decide.
2. Check on travel plans
As a client or employer, you are responsible for the health and safety of your workers as they travel to and from site. So, this is something you need to consider, and something an HSE inspector would be likely to ask about.
This is a tricky one. Government advice is to avoid public transport where possible and to avoid sharing vehicles. But parking and vehicle movements can be an emotive subject and create bad feeling from neighbours and local businesses.
It may be possible to secure more parking space nearby, depending on the location of the site. If workers do share vehicles, the advice is that the same people should stick to sharing and vehicles should be cleaned thoroughly and regularly.
Some contractors report that they are providing extra provision for bicycle parking – but that depends on how far people are travelling and how many tools or materials they are bringing to site.
Of course, there’s always electric scooters which became legal to drive on roads from 4 July, as long as the scooters are hired rather than personally owned and that they don’t travel above 15mph. Perhaps we will see swarms of construction workers buzzing to work in our major cities this summer? Additional safety thought: helmets won’t be mandated by law, but you probably should insist on them.
3. Hire a cleaner
Two words: soap and bleach. A daily sweep of the brush and some occasional mopping won’t cut it anymore. It may be that cleaning has to be added to someone’s duties or more resource may have to be allocated to pay for extra visits from cleaners.
If there are communal areas, the advice is that these should be cleaned at least twice a day. But think about all the other things that are touched on site and disinfect them regularly: door handles, handrails, even ladders. If tools or equipment have to be shared, they should be disinfected too. The HSE makes a point of saying that employers should check that cleaning products (and hand sanitisers) do the job they are supposed to. Best to do this with your supplier: trying to check this on the HSE website will take you down a rabbit hole.
Toilets need special attention. On larger sites, toilet police to limit entry or closing every other cubicle might be needed. Is now a good time to mention signs that tell people to close the toilet lid after a number two?
People should also wash their hands on arriving on site and before leaving. Soap and hot water are much better than hand sanitiser (but if you use hand sanitiser, make sure it’s at least 60% alcohol). Companies that sell or lease mobile hand washing stations must be pretty busy right now…
It’s important to talk to companies in your supply chain about how your site will operate and any changes in practice. It might make sense to get their input on new systems and to work together on new method statements and risk assessments that apply to them. Anything that takes up time and reduces their productivity further – especially now when may businesses are in jeopardy – increases their commercial risk, and yours.
Once on site, the construction manager or site supervisor is the key to success. Site inductions are more important than ever. It’s vital to explain to everyone who comes onto site what the policies related to Coronavirus are and what is expected of them. Inductions should now include questions about Coronavirus-related symptoms – high temperature, continuous cough or loss of taste or smell.
Some sites are taking people’s temperature every day as they come through the gate; this also means that anyone feeling unwell will be more likely to stay at home, rather than try and work through it. Contractors report that where they have created an environment where it’s clear that anyone with symptoms should be at home, it’s easier for workers to police each other.
Openness is important. In the early days of the epidemic, there were reports that site managers were hiding cases of Covid 19 from co-workers. Policy needs to demand the opposite of that, with someone responsible for notifying any occurrences to those who have been working in close proximity to them or sharing a vehicle.
What do meetings look like on a construction site today? Weather allowing, it makes sense to carry out inductions and morning safety briefings outside. If that isn’t possible, the next best thing is a well-ventilated space, as few people as possible and possibly visors for those doing all the speaking.
Other meetings, which would usually involve people coming to site, are best held via video conferencing. New routines and communication arrangements might be necessary. Some managers on sites that continued to work during lockdown reported being swamped by email and phone queries from home-based colleagues at every time of the day, adding even more to their workload.
Signage is important, whether its Supermarket-style arrows to guide flow around site or reminders to wash hands for 20 seconds. Notices on the outside of the site hoardings to let the public know you are taking special precautions are a good idea.
5. Keep records
The law says that if you have five employees or more, it’s not enough to say that you do things, you must be able to prove that you do them too. Even if the law doesn’t demand it, it may make sense to write things down to ensure that things are happening as planned.
This doesn’t have to be as onerous as it sounds. Recording inductions, including coronavirus questionnaires or temperature taking, for instance, can be done quickly and easily on a spread sheet. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has produced four checklists which you can adapt and use.
If someone catches Coronavirus on your project, then it is likely that you should report it to the HSE under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR).
Should you do all these things even on a small site? By law, only projects that last longer than 30 days and have more than 20 workers on them at the same time, or projects that exceed 500 person days, are notifiable. Since the HSE know about these sites, it’s far more likely that they will inspect them.
But even if you’re not notifiable, and there’s not much chance that an inspector would call, you should still do the right thing by those people working on your site. The way that a worker is treated has a huge impact on their loyalty to a project and their willingness to go the extra mile. Equally, if a site is clean and tidy, tradespeople are likely to be far more productive.
Some further reading:
Construction Leadership Council’s Site Operating Procedures, updated regularly as Government guidance changes (Version 5 from 4 July 2020) – here
Federation of Master Buildings (FMB) – advice on starting up sites – here
CITB Covid 19 safety checklists – here
HSE information on how to report Coronavirus infections – here
Image credit: iStock.com/peepo
About Kristina Smith
Kristina Smith is a writer and editor with a passion for construction, and a career that began - rather a long time ago – on site, as an engineer.