Last reviewed 4 August 2021

The UK Government has published a set of guidance documents to assist a range of workplaces with advice on establishing safe operations during the pandemic. Roland Finch considers the updated advice given to people who work in or run outdoor working environments.

The role of the construction industry in keeping the economy ticking over is widely acknowledged, and since most analysts agree the construction industry contributes around 6% of GDP and employs around 20% of the workforce, it makes sense for construction sites to go about their business, so long as those activities can be carried out safely.

So what is the current advice for clients and builders? There has been a great deal from governments and industry bodies, including the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), and the leading institutions, such as RIBA, RICS, ICE and CIOB and their counterparts throughout the UK and Ireland.

The Government published guidance titled Working Safely during Covid-19 in Construction and Other Outdoor Work for England. It has been updated on a number of occasions.

One thing perhaps to say about this guidance is that it refers to “outdoor work”, although, obviously, construction can also be carried out indoors. There is plenty of other relevant industry advice on site operating procedures, which will apply both in outdoor and indoor situations.

It should be noted that since public health matters are devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there will be differing rules in those areas. However, the latest Government guidance states in its introduction that there has been input from the devolved administrations as well as trade unions and other industry bodies.

Note:

that Covid-secure measures should continue even if employees have recently tested negative or had the vaccine.

Keeping staff and visitors safe

The Government has identified six priority actions for businesses, as follows.

  1. Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment and share it with staff.

  2. Provide adequate ventilation.

  3. Clean more often.

  4. Turn people with coronavirus symptoms away (whether staff, contractors, visitors or customers). Ensure that anyone who is required to self-isolate is not knowingly required or encouraged to come to work.

  5. Enable people to check-in at your venue even though it is no longer a legal requirement.

  6. Communicate and train.

What does the guidance say?

The guidance is arranged under eight main headings as follows.

1. Thinking about risk

Employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees. To do this, the new guidance describes Covid-19 as a workplace hazard, and recommends updating any existing risk assessment, or carrying out a new one to take account of Covid-19; the Coronavirus Construction Workers Risk Assessment is a good starting point. It also notes that employers have a duty to consult with workers, although this can be done through a representative selected by the workers or by a recognised trade union. The results of risk assessments must be shared with the workforce, and the guidance recommends publishing on the company website, where possible.

The guidance explains that the virus can be spread through particles (aerosols or droplets) or by touching contaminated surfaces. It includes suggestions as to how the risk of the virus spreading can be reduced, including the provision of adequate ventilation and measures to reduce the numbers of people coming in contact with each other, as well as measures to promote handwashing and sanitising, regular cleaning and disinfecting.

It also notes that the HSE has published specific guidance for business on how to manage risk and risk assessment at work along with specific advice to help control the risk of coronavirus in workplaces. It also contains a reminder of the methods of enforcement which are used to ensure compliance with the law.

2. Who should go to work?

Employers should ensure that workplaces are safe for people to return to work. The Government advice to work from home where possible has been removed, but a gradual return is recommended. The guidance acknowledges that ways of working have changed during the pandemic, and many employers are investigating work models which involve some homeworking. It encourages discussion with employees and other stakeholders

The new guidance suggests a focus on protecting people at higher risk — giving consideration and appropriate support to people who may be extremely vulnerable and those facing mental and physical health difficulties. Consideration should be given in all cases to observing legislation aimed at preventing discrimination, directly or indirectly against anyone because of a protected characteristic such as race or ethnicity, age, sex, disability or religious grounds.

Enable people to work from home while self-isolating. By law, employers must not knowingly require or encourage someone who is required to self-isolate to come to work. The guidance provides further details on what self isolation means, and the circumstances under which it will apply.

3. Reducing contact for workers

Although social distancing guidance is no longer in effect, risks can be reduced by taking measures to reduce social contact, including while arriving at and departing from work, and travelling around and between sites, as well as rest areas, canteens and similar settings. It gives some practical examples as to how this might be achieved, such as the use of fixed teams, workplace screens or barriers, rearranging workstations and improving ventilation.

4. Reducing risk for customers, visitors and contractors

It is important to ensure that there are clear site rules, and that these are followed by all concerned. Advice and guidance should be given to all relevant people explaining what they need to do to maintain safety and reduce the spread of Covid-19.

The guidance recommends the use of notices and signage, both for workers and visitors, and also to make the public aware of what is going on, and to reassure them that work is being carried out safely, with consideration being given to the needs of those with protected characteristics, such as those with visual or hearing impairments. Key points are as follows.

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

  • Establishing host responsibilities and necessary training for people who may act as hosts for visitors.

  • Reviewing access routes for staff and visitors to minimise social contact.

  • Co-ordinating with other occupiers of spaces and premises, particularly if these are shared.

  • Giving advice on where face coverings may be worn, and circumstances where they might need to be removed, such as for identification.

  • Giving specific advice on working in other locations, particuarly in people’s homes.

Ensuring that this information does not result in discrimination or compromise safety.

5. Cleaning the workplace

Before restarting work, the guidance recommends a further risk assessment is undertaken to identify specific areas that need attention. Existing precautions concerning washrooms and showers, etc will need reassessment to ensure social distancing rules can be followed. Workspaces and welfare facilities will need additional cleaning, as will tools and equipment. Extra bins should be provided for disposal of things like single use face coverings and PPE while special consideration should be given for the handling of materials and waste, and the use of shared site vehicles, or those which workers may take home.

If cleaning is as a result of a known or suspected case of Covid-19, then specific guidance must be followed.

6. Personal protective equipment (PPE) and face coverings

Construction workers are familiar with a variety of work-specific PPE, including face protection when working in dusty or confined areas, but the guidance reinforces the message regarding the need to protect against Covid-19. However, it no longer recommends the use of face coverings outside clinical settings, as these are not now required by law. It also points out that they should not be a substitute for other measures to manage the risk. The Government has issued separate advice via:

The advice has a reminder that some people are exempt from wearing face coverings on health, equality or age grounds, and notes that the wearing of such coverings may act as a barrier to communication in some situations. However, if workers choose to wear a face covering, they should be supported in using them safely, and advice given as to how they can be used safely.

7. Workforce management

The emphasis in this section is on risk assessment and planning, with particular reference on what to do if there is an outbreak of Covid-19, and how it should be reported and recorded, together with other actions which will need to be undertaken.

It goes on to give additional advice on the things to consider when organising work-related travel, such as use of vehicles and cleaning, as well as general advice on worker engagement and communication to ensure that all workers understand the issues and safety procedures, with emphasis on clear and simple messaging, with regular updates.

8. Tests and vaccinations

Regular testing  could help identify asymptomatic cases of Covid-19 in the workplace. Regular asymptomatic testing for staff should occur even if employees have:

  • received a recent negative test result

  • had the vaccine (either 1 or 2 doses).

  • natural immunity — based on the results of testing or a previously confirmed case of coronavirus.

Where testing on-site is provided it is essential that workplace testing is carried out in a safe manner and in an appropriate setting. It should also be used in conjunction with other control methods such as cleaning, good hygiene and ventilation.

As previously, anyone with coronavirus symptoms can get a free NHS test. Employers may also wish to consider providing independent workplace testing.

Conclusion

The coronavirus pandemic is a situation which is without parallel in modern times. As might be expected, therefore, it is difficult to know what is best practice in the circumstances. It is to be hoped, however, that the advice issued by Government is the result of wide consultation with industry and scientific experts, even though different Governments and different experts may give different responses, as can be seen by the guidance issued by the various devolved administrations. One of the stated priorities is to keep the construction industry working wherever possible, in order to underpin the economy.

A lot of the advice supposedly reflects common sense, and much of it reflects existing health and safety advice but, most importantly, it should be done by consensus. It is vital that the parties involved in a construction project should jointly agree the way forward to make everyone’s workplace as safe as it can be.

There are a number of sources of additional guidance, either from the Government, the HSE, or trade unions, business representative organisations and institutions.