Should the construction industry remain open, or pause for a period while the pandemic is at its most virulent and dangerous?
The construction industry must remain open.
In a world which is closer to a bad movie than what was reality just 12 months ago, everything must be considered afresh and evaluated with a whole new set of criteria. I believe that even in this new context, construction should remain open because the environment in which people are working is certainly as safe as going to the supermarket.
The importance of the construction industry and the built environment to society has been highlighted by this pandemic:
suitable hospital and onward care facilities
the importance of having schools with good ventilation
care homes that provide individual space and good infection control measures
suitable housing that is not overcrowded and available for all in society
The essential nature of all these things has been made more apparent and the speedier delivery of these is more important than ever before.
There is one particular element that we should be mindful of – the ageing construction workforce. There should be given specific protection to those who need it and indeed furlough provides an opportunity to ensure that those who most need it are protected.
Are sites safe and adhering to Covid protocols? For example, is it really realistic to enforce social distancing on-site? Or, for that matter, mask-wearing?
I believe that sites are adhering to Covid protocols and more. This is different to any other health and safety scenario that we have ever encountered – it is not some new piece of legislation that seems to be inflicting bureaucracy or a rule that is not understood.
Every person on site has a family that they are trying to protect and I believe every individual is looking to protect not only their livelihood, but also their health and that of their families. It is individual responsibility and decisions that each individual makes on site that ensures that sites are kept safe and enables social distancing to be maintained.
We have many practical ways on site to ensure social distancing - such as one-way systems, limiting numbers on site, scheduling breaks, Perspex screens in welfare areas, etc.
Social distancing becomes more difficult once you are onto the interior of the build, and this is where it becomes more important to ensure safety as there is less ventilation and traditionally people would have been in much closer proximity to each other. There are a number of things that can be put in place:
Working in bubbles (that might be per floor of a multistorey building or it might be in specific teams)
Scheduling of breaks – these are now in rotation and within the welfare facility plastic screens are in place (which make it look a little like a call centre!)
Regular cleaning of all welfare and common areas – this should be done on a far more regular basis
Limiting the number of people on site – we are probably operating at 80% efficiency as we need to limit the number of people on site.
Reprogramming the build
We are currently trialling face coverings on one of our sites and although we have only done this for two weeks it is being adhered to well as it is in everyone’s interest to keep each other safe.
You have several sites that are currently still working - what measures do you have in place to ensure a Covid-safe workplace and compliance?
We have a huge number of measures in place on site, everything from the hand sanitisers, one-way systems, staggered breaks, increased cleaning, no touch sign-in procedures, bubbling of teams, to name a few.
Is there any evidence to suggest that construction sites being open is leading to a rise in infections among workers?
We are currently seeing very few infections within workers, and where we have been seeing infections or the need to self-isolate, it was frequently in relation to children.
As a family business, there is a real feeling of working together to protect each other and we are seeing people quickly notify us and self-isolate if they have symptoms and they quickly get a test – we have been lucky these have mainly been negative.
What are you doing to encourage workers to self-isolate if they have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has the virus, or suspects they might?
We are a team that know each other, who have worked with each other for many years and there is a very clear duty which we all feel to protect each other and care for each other. This, when combined with the open and transparent culture we have, means that people do self-isolate if they have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who is positive.
We work as a team to protect each other and we know that if there are a number of people that are self-isolating, we have allocated people who will take over their responsibilities until they have a negative test or are better so there is never any pressure to come to work if there is a risk.
For those who are not site-based, we have always enabled flexible working and so there is no change there. We have provided flexibility in how people work and their holiday is able to be carried over to a new financial year so that holiday can be used where necessary.
We are providing as much flexibility for people to work from home which is fine if you're a contracts manager or co-ordinator, but will not help those staff who are based on site.
Where we are finding this an issue most is where staff are having to repeatedly self-isolate due to being in contact with someone who has the virus, and it was also an issue when classes of children were sent home as they would then need to be home as there were no other childcare options if your children have to self-isolate.
What would be the negative impacts, economically and otherwise, of shutting down the construction sector wholesale?
The impact of shutting down the construction wholesale would be catastrophic for the communities that we are part of, not only in economic terms but also in terms of delivering facilities such as doctor’s surgeries, care homes, affordable housing, etc.
The pandemic has highlighted the impact poor and overcrowded housing has on health. This was an issue prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 has amplified this.
We know that the most common place for transmission is within the household and we also know that the rate of transmission increases in poor quality housing. Shutting down construction when there is no evidence of higher transmission rates and when it currently appears to be safer than going to the supermarket is completely unjustifiable.
I appreciate that the article is about the negative impact, but I really hope that there are some positive things that come out of the pandemic and that is the realisation that we are all part of one community, that our importance is not determined by the size of our pay packet but the role that we play in society.
I would love to see some schemes put in place for those that have been at the very front line of the pandemic to ensure that they have access to good housing and education and childcare – this should be a basic need that all in our society should be able to access and surely we now all realise that we are all part of one society.