A Scottish Construction Health & Safety Consultant's Thoughts on the Covid -19 pandemic and its effect on the industry

Mike Sturgeon
As we entered the new decade most of us who follow news headlines had heard of coronavirus. By the start of March, it was becoming apparent that this was different from previous threats such as SARs, major events were being cancelled and panic buying of “essential” supplies was setting in, then relatively quickly, on the 23rd of March we were all in lockdown.

Debates ensued as to what could continue, and as ever our construction industry was awash with different opinions and interpretations. Over ten weeks on, some things have become clearer, the way we have to go about common tasks such as supermarket shopping has changed for all to see. In our construction industry, the "construction process” has had to quickly adapt and it is now clear that how we plan, manage and control construction site activity has changed for the foreseeable future.

As a construction-based Safety & Health Practitioner, this has got me thinking - in unprecedented times, have we all thought about all the implications thoroughly enough?

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015)

Before we tackle any new workplace rules, it is worth considering a few implications of our existing legislation; Regulation 4 requires a client to make suitable management arrangements to:

  • ensure the work is carried without risks to the H&S of any person effected,
  • ensure sufficient welfare facilities are provided and that these are maintained and reviewed throughout the works,
  • take reasonable steps to ensure that the principal contractor is complying with their respective duties to plan, manage and monitor the works, and consult and engage with workers on matters that which may affect their health (and safety).

That is pretty clear, and whilst we are all dealing with a situation that was unforeseen when such legislation was drawn up, the principles need to be followed. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE), have released statements that controlling the risk posed by the virus is at the heart of the return to work. They will not hesitate to take enforcement action, should they become aware of situations where the current Covid-19 Guidance is not being followed in the workplace.

That brings us to the new requirements, the fundamental of which is to keep at least 2m away from each other (social distancing) and to keep ourselves, tools, equipment and touch points clean and sanitised. For your reference the applicable guidance (referred to above) is published on the government website: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19/construction-and-other-outdoor-work Site Operating Procedures have been developed and published by the Construction Leadership Council: https://www.constructionleadershipcouncil.co.uk/news/site-operating-procedures-version-4-published/  

Like all H&S guidance and legislation, these represent the minimum standards to be achieved. At Faithful+Gould we are largely seeing a positive response from Contractors to these requirements. However, there are contrary views as to the impact; some contractors advising little impact, whilst others are quoting significant cost and time implications. Who has it right?

The forgotten part of the construction process in all of our discussions is design. At Faithful+Gould, our prior investment in digital technologies has enabled a seamless transition to remote working. Design team meetings and workshops have progressed virtually, with screen sharing possibly being a more efficient and focused way to walk through workshops.  – has a new practice been borne for the future? The important aspect here are the CDM duties. Regulation 9 (amongst other obligations) requires designers, when preparing a design, to eliminate foreseeable risks to the health of those carrying out the construction work – how many designers will now be considering the social distancing aspects involved in constructing their designs?

Enforcement

Since the lockdown was implemented, the HSE have suspended their site inspection activities. They announced in the last week of May, that as the construction industry (in England) begins a return to work, site inspections will be recommencing.

It is worth noting that the government announced a £14M funding package for the HSE, to help them with resources to ensure that workplaces are kept safe during the virus pandemic. During the lockdown period, in which most construction sites were closed in Scotland and Wales, and an estimated 50% were closed in England, the HSE received over 5,000 complaints about potential coronavirus related workplace issues; perhaps an indication that confidence needs to be built around new procedures and processes.  

Devolved Differences

We know that the approach to tackling Covid-19 varies across the UK.

The 2m distancing rule is a workplace regulation in Scotland and Wales, whilst the various guidance on construction site operating procedures is generally universal. However, for our industry the main differences between the devolved governments and Westminster, is the interpretation of what is deemed “essential” construction work and the timing and speed to the easing of the lockdown.

For our clients, many of whom operate nationwide, this lack of consistency can be a source of added frustration and confusion. Our team of H&S Services Consultants have been auditing large scale construction sites still operating south of the border, whilst all but essential projects in Scotland have been at a standstill.

The Scottish Government, in consultation with Construction Scotland, has set out a 6 Phase Plan for restarting construction:

  • Phase 0 – Planning
  • Phase 1 – COVID-19 pre-start site preparation
  • Phase 2 – Soft start (only where physical distancing can be maintained)
  • Phase 3 – Steady state (only where physical distancing can be maintained)
  • Phase 4 – Steady state (where physical distancing can be maintained and/or with PPE use)
  • Phase 5 – Increasing density / productivity

The go-ahead to move from Phase 0 into Phase 1 was given on the 28th May, to commence the following day. However many contractors are not clear on what is required to be able to progress into Phase 2, with the government advising that it will be “evidence based” and will only be permitted when safe to do so and following “consultation with the government.”

Further detailed site guidance has also been published by the Construction Industry Coronavirus Forum, under the title “Safe Return and Restart”. These are expanded guidelines for underpinning Construction Scotland’s safe operating guidance, introducing such provisions as Site Covid Compliance Officers, and including a section on the role of the Client. This is new information and new requirements which the industry is interpreting as they go – again another potential cause of confusion.

These are indeed unprecedented, and confusing time. Faithful+Gould’s H&S Professionals continue to work with our clients, helping them ensure that suitable arrangements are being made on their projects and that they are up to date with industry requirements and best practices.

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