As businesses look to reopen following lockdown, the UK Government has published a set of guidance documents to assist a range of workplaces with advice on establishing safe operations. Roland Finch considers the advice given to people who work in or run outdoor working environments.

During the coronavirus outbreak, and despite the unprecedented Government interventions, particularly in the UK, one of the discussions that has rarely been out of the news is the role of the construction industry. When the UK lockdown was announced in March, several construction sites remained open.

One reason given at the time was the need to keep the economy ticking over, and since most analysts agree the construction industry contributes around 6% of GDP and employs around 20% of the workforce, it seems to make sense, 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 written, most of it good, some of it puzzling and all of it well intentioned, 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 most recent Government publication was issued on 11 May and is titled Working Safely during COVID-19 in Construction and other Outdoor Work.

The first thing perhaps to say about this guidance is that it refers to “outdoor work”. As we know, construction can also be carried out indoors. There is plenty of advice on site operating procedures, which will apply both in outdoor and indoor situations — in particular that issued by the CLC on Site Operating Procedures — which is relevant.

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.

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 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 their employees, although this can be done through a representative selected by the workers or by a recognised trade union.

The guidance contains a five-point checklist for reopening, in that organisations should confirm that they have:

  • carried out a COVID-19 risk assessment and shared the results with employees

  • established cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with guidance

  • taken all reasonable steps to help people work from home

  • taken all reasonable steps to maintain a 2m distance in the workplace

  • where people cannot be 2m apart, done everything practical to manage transmission risk.

2. Who should go to work?

In England, current advice is that everyone should work from home, unless they cannot work from home. Advice is different under the devolved administrations, although each has recognised that some work continues and has issued guidance on how this should be undertaken. (See the Coronavirus Staff at Risk Assessment Template for assistance in identifying vulnerable employees.)

The new guidance lists the main steps as follows.

  • Considering who is needed on site, ie support staff should work from home if at all possible.

  • Planning for the minimum number of people needed to be on site to operate safely and effectively, eg workers deemed necessary to carry out physical works, supervise work or conduct work in order to operate safely.

  • Monitoring the wellbeing of people who are working from home and helping them stay connected to those operating in an outdoor environment, especially if the majority of their colleagues are on site.

  • Keeping in touch with off-site workers on their working arrangements including their welfare, mental and physical health and personal security.

  • Providing equipment for people to work from home safely and effectively, eg remote access to work systems.

3. Social distancing at work

Generally speaking, social distancing is one thing that there is all-party consensus on, although the precise way in which it is observed is not always universally agreed. The guidance defines it as maintaining 2m separation wherever possible, including while arriving at and departing from work, and travelling between sites. It gives some practical examples as to how this might be achieved, including staggering start and finish times, floor distance markings and one-way systems.

The guidance goes on to say that if this is not possible, consideration should be given to whether the activity is necessary. In addition, the following is proposed.

  • Further increasing the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning.

  • Keeping the time involved as short as possible.

  • Using screens or barriers.

  • Avoiding face-to-face working wherever possible.

  • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with during the activity.

4. Managing customers, visitors and contractors

It is important to ensure that there are clear site rules, and that these are followed by all concerned.

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. 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.

  • Encourage visits via remote connection/working where this is an option.

  • Limit the number of visitors at any one time.

  • Determine if schedules for essential services and contractor visits can be revised to reduce interaction and overlap between people.

  • Maintain a record of all visitors, if this is practical.

5. Cleaning and sanitising the workplace

This is crucial in preventing and controlling the spread of the virus. It is likely that cleaning regimes will need to be stepped up, and 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.

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. It recommends the use of face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible. It also points out that they should not be a substitute for other measures to manage the risk.

7. Managing your workforce

The emphasis in this section is on changing the way that work is organised to minimise the risk of passing on the virus. This includes changing work patterns or shift groups, minimising worker contact and identifying activities where workers have to pass things to each other such as materials or shared tools. It also addresses things like congregations at certain places like exits, entrances and workspaces.

The guidance suggests that consideration should also be given to accommodation and travel for workers who have to travel, either ruling it out altogether, or arranging groups so that where contact is unavoidable it is restricted to as small a group as possible. As elsewhere, the first recommendation is that alternatives to contact should be considered first, so non-essential travel and smaller groups should be looked at before protective measures are adopted. It also recommends that regular communication with the workforce and unions should be a priority.

8. Inbound and outbound goods

Once more, the guidance includes some practical advice concerning activities involved in the movement of materials and goods, as follows.

  • Revise pick-up and drop-off collection points, procedures, signage and markings.

  • Minimise unnecessary contact at gatehouse security, yard and warehouse, eg non-contact deliveries where the nature of the product allows for use of electronic pre-booking.

  • Consider methods to reduce frequency of deliveries, eg by ordering larger quantities less often.

  • Where possible and safe, have single workers load or unload vehicles.

  • Where possible, use the same pairs of people for loads where more than one is needed.

  • Enable drivers to access welfare facilities when required, consistent with other guidance.

  • Encourage drivers to stay in their vehicles where this does not compromise their safety and existing safe working practice, such as preventing driveaways.

Working hours

On 13 May, the Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government issued a statement recommending that planning authorities should look sympathetically on applications to extend site working hours for certain construction activities, with the stated aim of assisting with the reprogramming of work and worker travel to facilitate social distancing and greater safety from coronavirus. Further details can be found on the Parliament website.

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.

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.

Last reviewed 19 May 2020