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A fine balancing act: Changing working practices and getting up and running again

by Jennie Ward

In her latest column for Total Contractor, Jackie Biswell of Apex Roofing discusses the lasting impact of COVID-19 and examines changes to working practices as we navigate our way through the post-lockdown ‘new normal’.

Jackie Biswell, Apex Roofing.

The problems actually began for construction back in February with bad weather – the wettest month since Met Office records began in 1862.

Large parts of the country were under water following heavy rainfall, which helped send the sector down by 2.1%.

By the time lockdown was imposed on March 23rd, the industry was only just starting to recover from the delays caused by the rainfall.

Then, overnight, construction companies were forced to strike a difficult balance between remaining open to finish existing projects while adhering to social distancing guidelines to keep staff safe. 

Furthermore, work had to stop on many projects because of issues such as sourcing materials and staff getting sick or needing to self-isolate.

As more sites ground to a halt, more and more workers were furloughed.

As a result of this, through March construction shrank by a record 5.9%. Private commercial work during the first quarter was down 5.3%, while private housing new work was down 4.2% and private housing repair and maintenance down 7.5%.

A slump in construction always spells recession and throw in an economy-sapping global health pandemic and there’s a recipe for disaster on the horizon.

It therefore came as no surprise to me that the first businesses to properly reopen during the first phase of Project Recovery were in our sector.

What happens next?
The government has published ‘COVID-19 secure’ guidelines for construction companies to operate safely as businesses get back up and running.

These are available to UK employers and cover eight workplace settings which are allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites, to factories and takeaways.

The guidance says all employers should carry out risk assessments for returning to work, in consultation with workers or trade unions.

It explains, where possible, they should publish these on company websites and organisations with more than 50 employees are expected to publish their risk assessments in full.

It also suggests employers stagger shift times and ensure employees work in fixed teams to reduce the number of people coming into contact with each other.

Organisations also need to be satisfied that it is essential for employees to be present in the workplace, that it’s safe for them to be there, and that is mutually agreed between employers and workers.

In other words, this is a fine balancing act for employers who want to get their businesses up and running again and their responsibilities to the safeguarding of their people’s health and wellbeing.

As with all things, government guidance and health and safety will only go so far; businesses must think about what is needed for their own organisation and the specific needs of their people.

Top tips
Employers should:

  • stagger arrival times
  • provide multiple entrances to construction sites and use screen barriers to separate workers
  • offer employees fixed teams or partners and allow them to work in a single ‘zone’ within a site to reduce the number of people they come into contact with
  • reduce job rotation – so workers have a single task for the day – to limit the number of tools they touch
  • prevent employees making non-essential trips to other buildings or worksites
  • introduce working back-to-back or side-by-side instead of face-to-face
  • increase frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning

Where site visits are required, site guidance on social distancing and hygiene should be explained to visitors on or before arrival.

Visits via remote connection should be encouraged and, if not possible, visitor numbers should be limited to two at any one time.

Our sites have COVID-19 signage regarding social distancing and hygiene messages – including washing your hands. We have also provided staff with hand sanitiser, encouraged staff to travel to site individually and toilets have been changed so that only one person can use the facilities at a time. 

Take it seriously
Now for the really brutal bit. Recent reports have shown that men working in construction are among those most likely to die of the virus, second only to those working in the care sector.

The data, from the Office for National Statistics, shows that that construction workers had high rates of death involving COVID-19, with around 25.9 deaths per 100,000 males.

I don’t tell you this to add to the pressure you are already under at this time – but to demonstrate how seriously we all need to take the guidance we have been given.

Some in our industry can be blasé about health and safety at the best of times but right now, it matters more than ever to be vigilant.We have a long road ahead to get Britain back to work, but by taking the time to think through workplace protections and by engaging with staff, businesses will be in a much better position to bring people back at the right time and in the right way.

www.apexroofinguk.com

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