Last reviewed 12 April 2021

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 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.

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.

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 seven priority actions for businesses, as follows.

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

  2. Clean more often.

  3. Ask your visitors and staff to wear face coverings in any indoor space or where required by law.

  4. Make sure everyone is social distancing.

  5. Provide adequate ventilation.

  6. Take part in NHS Test and Trace.

  7. 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.

There are five more points for businesses providing construction and other outdoor work.

  1. Reduce crowding.

  2. Work with the same team every day.

  3. Arrange work spaces to keep staff apart.

  4. Clean shared equipment.

  5. Communicate and train.

What does the guidance say?

The guidance is arranged under nine 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 results of risk assessments must be shared with the workforce, and the guidance recommends publishing on the company website, where possible.

The guidance also advises that steps should be taken to ensure that workers do not have to raise their voices because of the potential for increased transmission due to infected droplets carrying in the air from shouting. It also clarifies the rules on mass gatherings in the workplace in that business following Covid-9 secure guidelines can host larger groups, provided they take reasonable steps to mitigate the risk of transmission.

Businesses following Covid-19 secure guidelines can host larger groups for indoor gatherings than are recommended for households, provided they take reasonable steps to mitigate the risk of transmission, and following a risk assessment. In any event the group should not exceed 30 people.

The guidance 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.

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 and the maximum number that can be safely accommodated, support staff should work from home if at all possible.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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. Social distancing for workers

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, or 1m with risk mitigations where 2m is not viable, 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, 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; in particular, by reducing movement and job rotation, introducing working zones and one-way systems, and use of signage and social distance marking.

  • Reviewing incident and emergency procedures; in particular, the need for sanitation for those who provide assistance to others.

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.

Organisations are required by law to support NHS Test and Trace and gather information on attendance of staff, customers and visitors.

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.

  • 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.

  • Encouraging visitors to use washing facilities and hand sanitiser as they enter the site.

  • Provision of advice and guidance, and appropriate signage.

5. Cleaning 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. 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. It recommends the use of face coverings in situations where social distancing is not possible, and where there are people they do not normally meet. 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.

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. It also provides guidance on the use of shared vehicles, and alternative travel methods. It is worth noting that during periods of local restrictions in different parts of the country it is important to be aware of, and observe, the different rules and any local guidance which may apply.

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, including those who may have visual impairments, or do not have English as a first language.

Subsequent updates have added the requirement to keep a temporary record of staff shift patterns for 21 days in order to assist the test and trace service to contain outbreaks, as well as guidance on what to do if there is a Covid-19 outbreak in the workplace. Advice on staff canteens and restaurants has also been added, including minimising the use of self-service options, as well as endeavouring to reduce the use of cash for transactions.

The Government has published guidance on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of coronavirus (Covid-19).

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.

9. Tests and vaccinations

The guidance notes that it is still important to continue with Covid-secure measures even if employees have been inoculated or received a recent negative test result.

Employers can now order rapid lateral flow tests for the workplace, to test employees with no coronavirus symptoms, if:

  • the business is registered in England

  • it employs 10 people or more

  • employees cannot work from home.

As before, anyone with symptoms can get a free NHS test.

Working hours

On 13 May 2020, 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, 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.