Assure 360

COVID-19 and asbestos removal: can we carry on?

Written by Nick Garland on 25/03/2020
 

Updated on 31/03/2020 9:50

Whatever your business, I’m sure you are trying to get your head around the crazy new world that we are living in. As of 09:00 on 30 March, government advice is that construction work can carry on, but (and this bit is absolutely critical) we need to observe social distancing. I’m going to reword that for clarity: physical distancing. Because the ‘social’ bit makes us think that it is something we consider after work.

Physical distancing is keeping two metres away from anyone that you don’t live with – that’s likely to mean everyone you work with.

If we are looking for good news in the asbestos removal industry, it is that we are pretty good at hazard identification, risk assessment and mitigation. All our personal protective equipment (PPE) is of the required grade. The other way to look at the immediate future is that we have a particular skill set, in that we clean up contaminated surfaces whilst keeping our workforce safe. As an industry we may be called upon to pitch in.

I’ve been considering how – and whether – we can continue to work safely in the current circumstances, and I wanted to share my thoughts in this post. But there’s a big caveat: I am not an expert virologist. Instead I’m drawing on my experience of hazard identification and mitigation. I believe these are all areas we should be thinking of. If you have anything to add, and especially if I have said something stupid, please shout asap.

I’ve been trying to work through the steps to identify decision / hold points and what we need to be thinking about. Remember the risk hierarchy:

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering Controls (e.g. physical barriers)
  • Administrative controls (e.g. procedures)
  • PPE

If our starting point is that the only ‘safe’ place is in an individual’s own home, it is possibly helpful to think of any asbestos-removal job as though the site is thoroughly contaminated with rat urine or pigeon guano. But where does ‘the job’ start and finish? We have to change how we think. Where does the risk now start? What new areas do we need to think about?

Good reason for the job?

The starting point unfortunately is – ‘is the individual job necessary?’. Commercially painful though it may be, we have to think about it. There is every possibility that it is – i.e. we may be remediating an existing risk. It may be a critical service e.g facilitating oxygen lines in a hospital. But if it’s to allow a new kitchen going in, probably not. Clearly if the tenant or owner is in one of the vulnerable categories (probably soon to include the elderly), we shouldn’t be going anywhere near them.

Remember that the point of physical distancing is that if we cut the number of people those carrying the infection pass it on to, by just 33%, the knock on effect over time is enormous:

Covid-19

A graphic which shows how social distancing can reduce the spread of coronavirus. Credit: Dr Robin Thompson/ University of Oxford, via itv.com

Should I / they be at work?

You need to give very clear guidance to all workers on who should and shouldn’t come to work – and if they do turn up, when to send them home. Anyone who meets one of the following criteria should not come to work:

  • Has a high temperature or a new persistent cough – follow the guidance on self-isolation
  • Is a vulnerable person (by virtue of their age, underlying health condition, clinical condition or are pregnant)
  • Is living with someone in self-isolation or a vulnerable person

If a worker develops a high temperature or a persistent cough while at work, they should:

  • Return home immediately
  • Avoid touching anything
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue and put it in a bin, or if they do not have tissues, cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow

I would err on the side of caution.

Getting to / from work

Typically we might have a driver and two passengers in the front of a van. Clearly this is not physical distancing. You will need to start thinking how you can achieve this. Can the workers arrive at site separately via their own transport (remembering that public transport is for critical workers now)? Many operatives don’t drive. Can you limit the number, for example by carrying only one passenger? And if you do, how do you mitigate that residual increased risk? This could be by routine such as daily disinfecting of the vehicle cabin by the site team, and rules such as windows open for ventilation, and no eating, drinking or smoking (all of which increase the chance of touching the face).

It could mean donning RPE, but half-masks have a limit for how long you should wear them. For longer journeys you’ll need to factor in regular breaks. 

As a back-up it would probably be prudent to do regular full decontamination of the vehicles back in the yard – treat this like an ‘environmental clean’ with full face RPE and dilute bleach (1:60).

Induction and arriving

Again, physical distancing! Keep two metres away from anyone that you don’t live with – i.e. everyone you work with.

Setting up the Job

Again, is it possible to do the work and obey physical distancing? The nature of the property may help or hinder this (very small flats vs larger areas). Again consider the risk hierarchy. Just as with a site posing a psittacosis risk, we would ordinarily disinfect surfaces before we start, increase ventilation, introduce strict eating, drinking and smoking procedures, and require PPE (gloves, RPE and overalls). We’d also increase our washing frequency.

Hygiene

The normal challenge on sites is welfare, and that’s even more the case now. Again, if we are imagining that the area is thoroughly contaminated with rat urine or pigeon guano, we would obviously wash our hands before any break. We need to be thinking along those lines – but even more so. Workers should wash their hands on arrival at the site and then regularly after that. How can our guys frequently wash their hands for the required 20 seconds? They can use hand sanitiser if you have it, but this must contain more than 60% alcohol. Possibly better is a killer spray, with one person spraying whilst the second washes their hands.

 Home-brew Sanitiser Recipe

  • 75ml of isopropyl or rubbing alcohol (99 percent) – can be found online still
  • 25ml of aloe vera gel (to help keep your hands smooth and to counteract the harshness of alcohol) – can be found online still
  • 10 drops of essential oil, such as lavender oil, or you can use lemon juice instead.

I understand that this will come out much stronger smelling and thinner than you would expect. The ingredients are expensive online – but as you apparently only need a few drops, it should last. Remember that the advice is to ‘wash’ hands for at least 20 seconds, ensuring that every nook is thoroughly rubbed clean.

Welfare – Breakfast and Break times

I received a photo from a truck driver at one of the UK largest construction sites on the first day of the lockdown. It shows an enclosed canteen crammed with people just inches from each other – clearly madness.

Some very good advice has now been published by Build UK – so hopefully this is a thing of the past. I also understand that many of the Tier 1 contractors are planning on suspending operations by the end of the week.

It shouldn’t need saying, but DO NOT USE CANTEENS. Everyone should wash their hands before all breaks. There should be no crowding into the toilets – give everyone plenty of space and extra time if needed. Individuals should bring their lunch and drinking water from home – remembering that those working in a warm enclosure will need to drink plenty. There should be no eating together as a team. Stay at least two metres apart!

Asbestos Removal

Clearly, we are very well protected in the enclosure, although possibly less so on semi-controlled jobs. It may be worth considering full-face powered RPE for all works as that also prevents people from touching their face. Similarly, full transit procedures for all works may be a good idea.

Plant and Equipment

Thorough external cleaning – again using the dilute bleach solution (1:60). This should be done at the end of the project and before issuing it to site.

Back Office

It’s much easier at the office, but still a challenge – again, the primary focus is physical distancing, so how do you achieve this?

  • Everyone who can work from home should – this may require additional computers and consideration of home broadband services.
  • Virtual meetings and conference calls – for the past year we have used Zoom as a virtual meeting platform. Other services such as paperless solutions will help you manage remotely.
  • Rota system to set times for team members to attend the office to carry out work they absolutely can’t do from home. Perhaps one day each, to keep them separate. Alternatively, modular working. It may be that you have an office set up that allows workers to work in their own office and not mingle.
  • Delivery of stores and equipment – deliver to site to prevent unnecessary visits to the office. Consider setting up an external quarantine area for deliveries, and wipe down before it comes into the stores area.
  • Hand sanitiser stations at entrance and throughout the office.
  • Bring your own food, and create a rota for the kitchen.
  • Limit who comes into the office further. Pause exterior contractors (cleaners, window cleaners etc) to reduce the vectors into the office.

It may be possible to have an unmanned reception for visitors and deliveries, showing a number people can call (on their own phone) to let you know they’ve arrived. This ‘high risk area’ could be disinfected after every ‘exposure’.

It needs to be remembered that the virus can, apparently, survive on some surfaces for several days. Staff should be encouraged to wipe down surfaces with dilute bleach or a soap solution, and frequently wash their hands.

However (and it’s a biggie), the advice is still uncertain. I started by saying that the government advice is that construction can go ahead, but the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has said: “My view is no construction work unless it is for a safety reason.”

If, after all of this, you decide not to keep operating and you have spare stocks of PPE – our medics are in desperate need.

Further reading:

Build UK Site Operating Procedures – Protecting Your Workforce

HSE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): latest information and advice

Thanks to all those that helped with this note.

Good luck, stay in touch and we’ll get through this together.

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