Assure 360

Sorry for the inconvenience – the HSE cracks down on site facilities

Written by Nick Garland on 09/02/2023

Site welfare is something that’s all too often overlooked on asbestos-removal jobs. We’ve all worked on sites with incredibly inadequate facilities, whether it’s too few loos, unsuitable washing facilities, or just nowhere to sit and take a break.

One of the main reasons it’s so common is that a lot of these projects are quite short term. Sometimes it’s just one or two days. Management can become too focused on the complexity of the job itself, which leaves welfare as an afterthought. Another issue is that these short-term jobs are typically in flats and houses, and by their very nature they prevent access to on-site facilities. For example, asbestos removal of the riser in a toilet might mean that the loo is available for the first couple of hours, but then it’s very much not for the rest of the day.

But while the management may forget to provide it, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) views adequate welfare as a fundamental basic necessity for workers. In fact, during the COVID restrictions, Prohibition and Improvement Notices that mentioned COVID almost exclusively targeted inadequate welfare.

Management can also misinterpret the ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ (SFARP) exception, thinking along the lines of “It’s a one day job. What’s it reasonable for me to allow for?”. The law sets out a basic expectation of toilets, a supply of hot and cold (or warm) water for washing, changing facilities, drinking water, and somewhere to eat and rest. You’d have to have very significant reasons to not provide the minimum.

The HSE is reinforcing this with the release of some new guidance: Construction – Welfare Standards. I’m grateful to Graham Warren at ACAD for flagging it up in the latest newsletter. The guidance is actually for its own officers, not us, but understanding how the HSE will be looking at the subject is crucial: inspectors are directed to take ‘appropriate’ enforcement action to secure compliance.

HSE action

The guidance makes clear that where toilets, hand basins, drying rooms etc. haven’t been provided, or they’re inadequate, an Improvement Notice (IN) is the appropriate response. There will be local exceptions that might even dial this up to a Prohibition Notice (PN), for example if there’s an imminent risk to health. But the guidance also states that prosecution should be considered for repeated offences – or even if the first offence is bad enough.

The penalties for getting it wrong are therefore significant. The guidance quotes multiple regulations and guidance documents, weaving together a framework for the inspectors to justify enforcement action. The most significant is obviously the Construction (Design and Management) 2015 (CDM 2015) regulations. Among other things, these introduced clear definitions for all parties in construction (including clients), removing the cloak of invisibility that had allowed some clients to claim ignorance.

In practice a client needs to create an environment where work can be carried out with the appropriate welfare facilities in place. If the works involve a specific fenced-off construction site, use of the client’s own facilities should not be the default option. The regs go on to say that where there isn’t such a specific construction site, clients are legally required to make their own facilities available for use.

Domestic clients are the exception. CDM 2015 and the HSE guidance both recognise that they don’t have legal duties, so it falls to the principal contractor (PC) and other contractors to ensure compliance.

Contractors’ duties

Principal contractors have clear and unavoidable duties to provide facilities from prior to the start of construction work, all the way through to the end of the project. Contractors’ duties shadow those of the PC. If there are several contractors on a site, it’s a case of liaising and cooperating with the PC. If there’s only one, then all of the duties are yours.

That ‘so far as reasonably practicable’ get-out gets some clarification with regards to welfare. In essence it’s about weighing the measures needed against the sacrifices involved. Crucially, though, it’s weighted in favour of health and safety, i.e. it’s assumed you’ll provide the welfare, unless you can demonstrate it would involve ‘grossly disproportionate sacrifices’. Cost is not the primary focus and shouldn’t be considered ‘disproportionate sacrifice’.

Toilets are mandatory (i.e. you don’t get to say they’re not reasonably practicable), and there’s a hierarchy, with flushing toilets at the top and chemical Portaloos very much at the bottom. The guide states that for large or long-running sites the provision of ‘only portable toilets’ is considered insufficient – as it would very much be reasonably practicable to provide better.

All welfare facilities must also be ‘readily accessible’. What this means varies with the urgency: rest breaks can be planned, so the distance to travel can be greater. Toilet facilities, however, need to be much more convenient. The guide quotes BS6465(1) as stating that construction sites should provide WCs within 150 metres of the workplace. Arranging toilet use with a café that’s 10 minutes’ drive away would not cut it.

For the same reason the numbers of cubicles are also pre-determined:

Number of people Cubicles (not urinals)
1-5 1
6-25 2
26-50 3

There are some other key requirements:

  • Separate rooms for males and females. This HSE guidance is for the construction industry in general – it’s not specific to the asbestos industry – but it would have shown joined up thinking if inspectors were also directed to consider that most of our decontamination units are non-compliant with this.
  • Washing facilities. Unlike toilets, washing facilities are qualified with SFARP. In other words, they should be provided except where this involves grossly disproportionate sacrifices. The HSE’s view is that suitable washing facilities (separate ones for toilets and rest areas) are easy to plan for and provide, and that justifiable exceptions are few and far between. Note – specific mention is made that cold water on its own is not sufficient.
  • Drinking water. This must be readily available and – it nearly goes without saying – also fit for human consumption. Running water or sealed water bottles along with cups and mugs are specified.
  • Rest rooms. These are another mandatory facility, like toilets. What constitutes a rest room is not clearly defined, but there are some pointers, which indicate something more significant than many of the welfare areas I come across. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations (WHSWR) state they must be equipped with an adequate number of tables, and adequate seating with backs for the number of workers likely to use them at any one time.

What I find particularly interesting about this guidance is the way that it details other regs and approved codes of practice (ACoPs) detailed in the guidance. It features them along the lines of ‘areas to be considered when considering enforcement and prosecution’. But to think of it another way, I always like to ask one of my favourite questions: ‘Why are we doing this?’ – as understanding why is often the lightbulb moment.

Of course, there’s the basic human dignity of providing somewhere to go. Not to mention hygiene 101: wash your hands before you eat. But as these often don’t seem enough reason, how about:

  • First aid. Clearly things go wrong on site, and we are used to providing training for staff and first aid kits. The first day of First Aid school teaches you to wash your hands first, so a sink, soap, and hot and cold water is therefore a must.
  • Hazardous substances. Washing requirements are often a key control measure when working with hazardous substances. For example, with lead paint it’s crucial to wash after work and before each break. That washing needs to be more than just the hands, covering the whole forearm up to the elbow. A small sink is therefore not suitable, and something else would need to be provided.

I’m sure you can think of more examples and, if they apply to the work you’re doing, the HSE inspectors will doubtless think of them too. Perhaps it’s time for those of us who design and commission work to stop treating facilities as so much of an afterthought, and start planning work around the comfort of the people who do, after all, do the work on the ground.

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