If it wasn’t clear already, the arrival of second lockdowns in England, Wales, and several European countries confirm that this crisis will be here a while longer yet. Despite promising news from various vaccine trials – most notably the Pfizer/BioNTech candidate – mass vaccination programmes seem unlikely before Q2 next year. In the meantime the world needs to do its best to control the virus without disastrous damage to the economy.
What the UK government is trying to achieve with the second English lockdown is almost insanely difficult. The public needs to be fearful enough of the disease that it takes control measures seriously, optimistic enough that it can see light at the end of the tunnel, and yet still go out to work so that the economy does not grind to another halt. This despite a cycle of lockdown and release that’s likely to continue until late spring next year.
Processing what we need to do to come out the other side is going to be crucial. Construction and manufacturing have been targeted as protected parts of the economy, and the messaging is clear: keep safe, but keep going.
I’ve already written a couple of articles focusing on how to tackle the challenging working environment that Covid presents. Here I’m going to briefly revisit this and look at the latest advice. But it’s also important we acknowledge that changes such as increased remote working are going to be here to stay. I want to look at why embracing them, and making them part of a future strategy, is important to business success post-Covid.
What’s the latest guidance on safe working?
For all contractors, the first place to start is with the most recent version of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC)’s safe operating procedures (SOPs). At the time of writing these were up to version six, dated 20 October.
The SOPs have an excellent section structured according to the hierarchy of control, which succeeds in being both detailed and clear. However, the key points from this version are:
- Workers should maintain a minimum two-metre separation. If this isn’t practical, one-metre distancing is acceptable provided there are other controls
- Face coverings should be provided and worn if the area is enclosed, if distancing is not always possible, and where contact could be with a variety of people. One example would be when moving around in canteens
- High-touch areas should receive frequent decontamination
- Workers should wash hands before accessing the site. They should have breaks available to repeat frequently
- Contractors should monitor compliance with the rules
The challenges that these guidelines present will of course vary depending on the site. Space is crucial. In smaller, enclosed sites with limited access, maintaining a safe separation is likely to prove challenging. On large sites with big workforces, there may need to be staggered start/finish times – and careful management of queues entering the site or core facilities like the canteen.
Other issues will tax everyone – for example, the difficulty of simply getting staff to the site in shared vehicles. The government’s guidance remains much the same: increased washing and cleaning, barriers, bubbled teams and short journey times. However there’s a key difference in lockdown two: public transport isn’t yet being reserved for key workers. If you must use it, cover your face.
Face Coverings and Masks
When it comes to face coverings, we’ve certainly moved on from when I last wrote. At that time, Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan was calling for face coverings to be part of standard procedures. Now the CLC agrees – up to a point. While the SOP clearly states that we should not be recommending additional PPE due to Covid, it does specify face coverings in certain confined situations.
My view – and it is certainly something I have practiced since April – is that we should be wearing face coverings when we can’t guarantee social distancing. On busier sites, and particularly indoor projects, that has been most of the time.
What hasn’t been discussed much is the problem of wearing face coverings with glasses, whether that is readers, safety, or – as in my case – both. Anyone who has the problem of fogging is balancing the risks of impaired vision against the protection of their fellow workers. For what it’s worth, the only face masks I have found that fit close enough to reduce fogging are the ones with the metal strip on the bridge of the nose.
Whatever face covering you wear, you should absolutely avoid dust masks with a valve. Remember that we’re wearing face coverings not to protect ourselves, but to disrupt our breath out – and therefore protect others. Valved masks keep glasses clear because they let our breath escape unimpeded. For similar reasons, face shields offer little other than immediate protection if someone coughs on us.
The most difficult, draconian measures will be gone with the pandemic. But I wanted to stress the importance of stepping back and looking at positive changes that will continue to reap benefits beyond it. Companies who have been forced to find ways to reduce site traffic and enable remote working are finding new efficiencies that will support a stronger recovery when the pandemic is over.
Let’s not kid ourselves – there’s no substitute for boots on the ground when it comes to construction work – but the technologies businesses put in place now will have a longer-term benefit than ‘just’ minimising the risks from Covid.
We know that remote workplace technologies reduce the risk to managers and supervisors, and lower the chances that they spread the virus to or from their colleagues. Yet at the same time they introduce new and lasting efficiencies. Video calls reduce the need to travel, saving on expenses and letting managers use their time more effectively. Video briefings and inductions help reduce face-to-face contact, but they can also be more flexible and convenient. We all recognise the difficulties caused by having to shut projects down for an afternoon just to get the whole team together, now this can just be an hour at the end of the shift where everyone logs in to a call.
We see the same benefits from removing the paperwork involved in asbestos management and health and safety auditing. During Covid, the Assure360 Paperless app has helped customers reduce the amount of paperwork and other material going on and off site, and improved visibility for managers as they seek to maintain quality while minimising site visits. In the words of GreenAir Environmental director Graham Patterson: “If it wasn’t for Assure360 I think we’d have a major issue with having paper method statements, everybody touching it, and the virus sitting on that surface which you can’t wipe down.”
However, the benefits to streamlining critical safety checks predate the pandemic, and will continue after it’s gone. Customers who have adopted Paperless and other Assure360 solutions as a way to improve their ability to manage jobs in a socially-distanced environment have already discovered the big efficiency improvements we can deliver in normal times. “The Assure360 system has streamlined the company massively,” adds Graham Patterson. “And if we were to go back to the old paper systems I think we would struggle.”
The second wave of lockdowns remind us that we’re not done with Covid yet. We’re continuing to improve our products to provide essential support now, and more worthwhile benefits in the long term. After redesigning Paperless to make it even easier to use and even more of a time-saver, we’re working on an update to Assure360 Incident – our accident and near-miss reporting app.
The same principles apply as with all Assure360 products: an effortless user interface, letting even non-technical users improve and streamline essential health and safety record keeping. And with this update, Incident will also become the second Assure360 app to gain Android support, reducing the cost of entry to the Assure360 system.
Now more than ever it’s imperative to cut paperwork and supervision overheads, while simultaneously ensuring greater compliance. And when things are better, the efficiencies your business discovers today will continue to deliver benefits and competitive advantages as the economy recovers. I think we should all see this as evidence that the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a brighter future.
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