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COVID-19: Construction site operating procedures

The construction industry has been grappling with ensuring its workers can safely operate on construction sites since COVID-19.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry has been grappling not only with its economic effects, but also with ensuring its workers can safely operate on construction sites.

From 6 January 2021, a third national lockdown was applied in all of England. The Government has been urging people to work from home and if that is not possible, to only travel into work if it is safe to do so. Nevertheless, reports from various construction workers have made it into the national press highlighting unsafe working conditions, having to commute into work on busy trains and working in site offices with inadequate ventilation and PPE.

Under the current guidance, construction and other outdoor work can take place, provided that it is COVID-secure. Workers should follow the social distancing rules and employers should make face coverings available to be worn in enclosed spaces or where social distancing is not possible.

The Construction Leadership Council (“CLC”) has recently published an updated version of its Construction Site Operating Procedures: Protecting Your Workforce during Coronavirus (Covid-19) seeking to introduce consistent measures on construction sites of all types and sizes and emphasising the need to protect their workforce. This includes considering how personnel travel to and from site. Construction workers are encouraged to use their own private vehicles where possible, and if they need to share transport, they should try to share with the same individuals (up to a maximum of 6 at any one time) and wear a face covering. When public transport is the only option, workers should try to avoid travelling during peak times (05:45 – 08.15 and 16:00 – 17:30) and must wear a face covering.

Constructions site managers and employers are now faced with the challenging task of making sure their sites can operate effectively whilst ensuring the workers can travel into work safely. Appropriate measures may include changing and staggering site hours to reduce congestion on public transport, making parking arrangements for additional vehicles and bicycles, and providing facilities such as lockers and showers. The CLC has produced a handy flowchart on what to do if a worker has Covid-19 or has to self-isolate.

The updated CLC Site Operating Procedures also advises construction sites to stop all non-essential visitors, to increase cleaning operations for commonly used areas, and carry out regular risk assessments to minimise the spread of infection.

The Government guidance is clear in that, if an activity cannot be undertaken safely, it should not take place. Having said that, many constructions workers which are low-paid and have little to no job security will have no incentive to self-isolate or report COVID symptoms, or refuse to commute into work in crowded conditions for fear of losing income. Andy Mitchell, co-chair of the CLC, recently warned of significant overcrowding particularly on the Jubilee Line (mostly being fed by national rail and DLR/Overground systems) and urged all construction workers not to use the public transport system to the east of London between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. each morning. Similarly, overcrowding at Canning Station in east London has been highlighted by the BBC London News. Sites around Stratford and Canary Warf were asked by Transport of London last July to stagger their working times.

In Scotland, a Bam construction site was closed in November 2020 after a COVID-19 outbreak with circa 70 positive cases out of a site workforce of 300. Previously, Scotland had closed construction sites but no such measures were ever introduced in England.

It is hoped that the newly released CLC guidance will result in better adherence to the rules. There is a very real risk that further restrictions, including the complete closure of ‘non-essential’ construction sites, will be imposed on the construction industry if the situation does not improve. Such restrictions are likely to result in additional delays and financial losses for constructions companies, potentially increasing redundancies and even insolvencies.

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