As the UK begins to lift its lockdown restrictions, the focus is shifting towards how we safely restart the economy. Work is resuming on construction and demolition sites across the country – and more trades are coming onto those where it never had to stop. But with the threat of the coronavirus very much remaining, it’s more important than ever to implement and enforce safe working practices.
As sites fill up, distancing, protection and welfare will be critical in ensuring the construction industry doesn’t become an incubator for a second wave of the pandemic. For this post, we spoke with two major contractors who have continued to work in the crisis, to try to understand what safe working looks like in the new normal.
For all contractors, the first place to start is with the Construction Leadership Council’s safe operating procedures (SOPs). The key points of the most recent version are:
- Non-essential physical work that requires close contact between workers should not be carried out
- Work requiring skin to skin contact should not be carried out
- Plan all other work to minimise contact between workers
- Reusable PPE should be thoroughly cleaned after use and not shared between workers
- Single-use PPE should be disposed of so that it cannot be reused
- Stairs should be used in preference to lifts or hoists
- Where lifts or hoists must be used, lower their capacity to reduce congestion and contact at all times
- Regularly clean touchpoints, doors, buttons etc
- Increase ventilation in enclosed spaces
- Regularly clean the inside of vehicle cabs and between use by different operators
The challenges that these guidelines present are, of course, going to vary depending on the site. Space is crucial – in smaller, enclosed sites with limited access, maintaining a safe separation is likely to prove far more challenging. Other issues will tax everyone – for example, the difficulty of simply getting staff to site in shared vehicles. Both of these are reflected in the calls by the Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan who said:
“Not wearing a mask should be considered as ‘anti-social’ as drink-driving.
“Face coverings are widely accepted as a means of reducing spread – protecting others in case you’re spreading the virus without symptoms, so I do believe that we are moving in that direction. This may sound strong now, but the move to more general use of face coverings is gaining momentum, so it may be prudent to start thinking how it could be incorporated into our standard procedures.”
There have been many calls for the government to be more prescriptive about what companies should do to get back to work, but health and safety law doesn’t – and can’t – really work like this. At its foundation is the recognition that legislation can’t address every risk or keep pace with the change. Instead a goal is set, and the employer (being the expert) implements controls specifically appropriate to the workplace to achieve this. Where they can’t, they must implement something else to mitigate the failings.
It’s the right approach, but the problem is that with Covid-19, the employer is no longer necessarily the expert in the hazard. This is where it’s necessarily for us all to constructively engage with unions and other outside bodies to find the solution.
Can you work safely?
We’ve already discussed specifics of whether and how you can keep working safely under Covid-19, but it’s worth revisiting some key parts. First, we need to remind ourselves of the risk hierarchy:
- Engineering Controls (e.g. physical barriers)
- Administrative controls (e.g. procedures)
As the restrictions are relaxed, the range of construction projects that can go ahead is becoming very broad. However, within every project the individual tasks need to be assessed. Where it’s not possible to follow the SOP guidelines in full, consider whether that activity needs to continue. If it must, take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission.
The next critical area is to understand who should and shouldn’t be at work, and give workers very clear guidance. Again, we’ve covered this in more detail in our previous post, but anyone displaying the key symptoms of infection (fever, coughing) should follow the guidance on self-isolation. Those considered vulnerable, or who live with vulnerable people, should stay away from the site.
Getting to and from work
We’ve discussed the difficulties of sharing vehicles amid coronavirus restrictions, and for some contractors this is likely to be the key challenge. “We have non-drivers coming to site, so it’s not possible for them to take a vehicle each,” explains Graham Patterson, director of Glasgow-based GreenAir Environmental. “One of our sites is 45 miles down the motorway from our guys’ homes, and you can’t really drive that far with the windows fully down. They drive with a mask on, and they clean the van when they get out of it.”
But as society opens up, public transport may again become accessible. It seems highly likely that it will be mandatory to wear ‘face coverings’ when using public transport or even going outside of your own home. It’s unlikely that this will mean a P3 respirator, especially as they’re in short supply. More likely there’ll be a requirement for cotton face masks.
It should be remembered that face masks are intended to protect others – not the wearer. They act as a barrier for your inadvertent coughs and may reduce the amount of virus particles distributed by infected people. To protect ourselves we wash hands, stay at least two metres apart, and try to stop touching our face.
As soon as face coverings become mandatory they’re likely to be in short supply, but it is possible to make your own. If you’ll need a mask for long periods it needs to be light, comfortable and not too hot. The latter will only become more important as we move into summer, as sweating encourages you to touch your face. If you are, or you know someone, handy with a needle and thread, you can find patterns such as this on the internet.
Coordinating deliveries and collections may also pose a challenge – particularly on smaller sites. Graham Patterson explains: “The roads are quiet, but still drivers can only give you approximate arrival times. When they get on site, they have to stay in their cabs until everyone is at least two metres back..One of our sites is small, so it’s just trying to organise that.”
Patterson also has misgivings about how some of the protections may work as more trades return to site. “There’s a groundworks contractor who’s due to start on Monday and he’s on the seventh revision of his method statement to even get allowed on site. We went through four.”
“The principal contractor is being incredibly careful, and has designed a site which looks really good. It ticks every box and then some. But it might not be practical when the new contractor turns up, so we’re expecting a day of ‘this is working, this isn’t working’.
“Below it all we face simple issues such as as if anyone is not well, whoever they came to work with has to stay off as well. You could quickly have a situation where you aren’t carrying out any new inductions and you run out of staff.”
Setting up the job
There are likely to be changes to the way you set jobs up, and additional equipment needed to ensure worker safety. Washing stations will need to be front and centre. You’ll need to set them up first – even before the decontamination unit.
We’ve already seen a greater provision of welfare facilities on sites, for example more toilets and cabins to allow greater separation and regular cleaning. “We’re the principal contractor for a massive site in Manchester,” explains Patterson. “We have two welfare cabins onsite with two toilet blocks, and we also have 10 bunker bins. Each one has its own fridge, cooking facilities, TV, bed, toilet and shower area. If anyone wants to use the better cooking facilities in the welfare cabins they just take turns and clean it down afterwards.”
“We’re very lucky that there’s a small town down there and we’re able to carry on almost as normal.”
For asbestos removal, think about how the team will construct the enclosure. Is it possible to do the work and obey physical distancing? Again, the nature and size of the site will be a key factor here. When creating the plan of work, review the risk hierarchy and consider whether you need to increase some controls because the site limits what you can do in other areas.
“The only thing that could create challenges for us is when the asbestos team is building or working in enclosures,” says Johnathon Teague, project coordinator at Armac Group. “We can’t keep the two-metre distance rule then, but obviously the team is all kitted up in full respiratory protective equipment (RPE) when they’re doing that, and following strict decontamination procedures afterwards, so it hasn’t been an issue.”
As with any construction job, safely managing the risks from coronavirus will be down to effective risk assessment, and devising a method of work that implements the necessary controls. While many of these are likely to be physical, technological solutions have the potential to help.
One target area is in helping improve compliance with the physical distancing guidelines. At least two companies are offering wristbands that notify wearers if they get within two metres of each other, and which keep a log of such ‘near misses’ that can be used for contact tracing if a worker subsequently tests positive. While we haven’t had hands-on experience with these, we know of at least one Tier-one contractor evaluating them.
This is a key area of concern for directors like Patterson, particularly as more trades return to sites. “Two metres is a massive gap to stay apart, and it’s also difficult for the guys to remember that gap. You know: ‘pass me that tool, give me this.’”
Proximity sensing technology might also help monitor the safe handoff of shared resources such as tools, but those in the industry have concerns. Patterson says: “If I have to share your tool will I have to wipe it down, set it in neutral ground, walk away, you walk, pick it up, use it? That’s not working. That’s just not practical.”
Management and supervision
There’s another, more fundamental way in which technology can help. If the best protection for workers is to keep them away from the site, anything that helps do so can lower the chance of the virus’ spread accelerating again. While there’s no substitute for boots on the ground when it comes to actually doing work, the right technology can minimise the risks that managers and supervisors face, and the chances that they spread the virus to or from their colleagues.
“We’ve had to reduce the site manager visiting the site,” explains Johnathon Teague. “We’re doing a lot more video calls with the site teams to make sure everything’s going as it needs to be. The technology has been useful to help us carry on.”
In addition to tools like video calling, Assure360 Paperless is specifically designed to reduce the amount of time managers spend on site visits, and that supervisors spend in the site office. For Graham Patterson, the benefits of Assure360 have been profound. “The system itself has streamlined the company massively, but it’s helped greatly under the lockdown.”
“We’re completely paperless. It’s saved so many issues. Now we take the guys’ photographs from more than two metres away to show attendance and that they’re clean-shaven. We don’t need them to sign anything. The iPad’s in a safety case, so it gets wiped down, passed around, and the guys can acknowledge the method statement. The supervisor’s doing all his checks and enclosure inspections on Assure360, so again it’s all done at the click of a button and we don’t need to print anything off.”
We created Paperless as a productivity tool for the supervisor, essentially replacing legacy paper-based safety checks with an app. It reduces the time supervisors spend on paperwork by up to a couple of hours a day, allowing them to focus on supervising the job. Liberated from the office, a full-time supervisor is more likely to bring in your project safely and ahead of time.
In the days of the coronavirus, using an easily sanitised tablet also frees supervisors from a huge site folder, and the potentially contaminated office. Paperless automatically syncs with Assure360’s cloud dashboard, so every scrap of site data is instantly visible from the contract manager’s laptop. With a clear view of critical safety and performance data including stop points, smoke tests and passed and failed visuals, managers can accurately assess progress without having to regularly visit the site.
With data already synced as it’s collected, there’s no requirement for box files of site paperwork to be reviewed and archived by the office team at the end of each job. It’s all done automatically, along with the processing of exposure records. We designed this to be a massive time saver, but in the context of coronavirus, it also reduces the need for staff to come into the office, or face exposure to potentially contaminated files.
“We have no paperwork come back from site now,” Teague continues. “Everything is done electronically, which helps us monitor things on an ongoing basis. Most of our work is large scale – months at a time – and Assure360 Paperless helps us manage everything as it’s happening, rather than waiting until the job’s finished and going through a couple of hundred pages of paperwork.”
These remain uncertain times, and as construction goes back to work the protections we need will pose new challenges and hurdles. But we work in an industry built on risk assessment and its mitigation through appropriate controls. In a time when even everyday activities now carry significant risk, we’re among the best equipped to cope.
Now more than ever it’s imperative to cut paperwork and supervision overheads, while simultaneously ensuring greater compliance. Discover how Assure360 Paperless is built from the ground up to maximise efficiency and safety on site.
Call for your free demo today!
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