Construction sector focuses on a safe return to work

We consider the UK government’s guidance to the construction industry on how to safely reopen sites following the COVID-19 lockdown

19 June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it one of the worst business hits to the construction sector in decades. The impact has been widespread for the industry, with sites closed and developers, contractors, suppliers and manufacturers throughout the supply chain having temporarily closed or restricted services in response.

As sites now begin to reopen or get comfortable with new working protocols, the UK government has published practical guidance on working safely during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This article considers the guidance issued by the UK government on 11 May 2020 (as updated). This useful guidance builds on the ‘Site Operating Procedures’ initially published by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) on 23 March 2020 with a number of updated versions having been published since. As public health is a devolved matter, separate guidance may apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and so this should be borne in mind when reviewing the information applicable to sites in those locations.

The Government Guidance

At this stage, eight different guidance documents have been produced with each covering a different type of work or work environment. Whilst one of the guidance documents is aimed at ‘Construction and Other Outdoor Work’ it should be noted that a number of the guides may apply to the same business or even the same personnel, for example if employees are on site but also travelling in vehicles or attending offices as part of their role.

This article focuses on the guidance for ‘Construction and Other Outdoor Work’ but it will be important for businesses to ensure they identify the correct measures to apply to their employees working in different environments as well as to any other relevant industry guidance.

Aspects for construction businesses to consider include:

Section 1: Thinking about risk

Under the government guidance, all employers must carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment. In doing so, employers will need to consider the impact of this assessment alongside existing non-COVID-19 related risk assessments. This has been made very clear by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Employers must identify sensible measures to control risks in their workplaces, for example by increasing the frequency of handwashing, surface cleaning and keeping workers 2 metres apart.

If employers fail to comply with public health legislation and/or government guidance, the HSE will be able to issue enforcement notices to help secure improvements.

Section 2: Who should go to work?

Employers must first consider who is actually needed on site, for example, those working in a supporting function should work from home, if possible.

In addition, employers need to take steps to ensure:

  1. Help is given to employees classed as clinically vulnerable (i.e. those with pre-existing conditions) to work from home in their current role or in an alternative role.
  2. Employees who are showing COVID-19 symptoms, live in a house with someone that is or who are advised to self-isolate as part of the government’s test and trace program, stay at home and follow government guidelines.
  3. Everyone in the workplace is treated equally and recognition is given to those with protected characteristics.

Section 3: Social distancing at work

Everyone must maintain a 2 metre distance when traveling to, arriving at and departing from work and between sites. Where 2 metre social distancing is not able to be implemented, businesses must take all mitigation actions to reduce the risk of transmission between workers. For example, employers should consider: staggering arrival and departure times to reduce crowding, introducing one way flow at entry and exit points and limiting passengers in corporate vehicles.

Section 4: Managing your customers, visitors and contractors

Employers need to minimise the number of unnecessary visits to the worksite. This can be achieved by using public notices to remind individuals to maintain social distancing on site and to make use of signs to inform the public of any works being performed outdoors.

Section 5: Cleaning the workplace

Employers must ensure the cleanliness of work areas and equipment is maintained. Equipment must be cleaned between uses and workers should be reminded to maintain good hygiene standards.

Section 6: Personal protective equipment (PPE)

Where employees are already using PPE in work activities to protect against non-COVID-19 risks, they should continue to do so. The guidance advises that wearing a face covering to protect against COVID-19 is optional and is not required by law but employers should support workers if they choose to wear one.

Section 7: Managing your workforce

As far as is possible, employers should organise teams into ‘fixed’ groups to reduce the number of contact workers have with each other. In addition, travel should be kept to a minimum and the number of people travelling together in any one vehicle should be minimised.

Section 8: Inbound and outbound goods

Employers will need to avoid surface transmission when goods enter and leave the site. This is especially key in high volume situations, for example, builders’ yards or dispatch areas. This might involve revised pick-up/drop-off points, procedures and using signs and markings.

Impact for the Industry

The steps which have had to be taken as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are clearly unprecedented and getting back to work in the current environment presents challenges for any business, whichever sector they operate in.

Certain aspects of the guidance will require a clear change in thinking for those working on construction sites. In many instances, contractors will need to update existing risk assessments and devise new working methods which take account of COVID-19 related precautions. This could mean a change to established ‘best practice’ and may well come at the expense of maximising productivity on site.

Key practical issues which construction businesses should be thinking about include:

  • Providing training – employers and site managers should ensure that those on site have the usual site induction which should include training on the COVID-19 related measures which must be adhered to. Some contractors have already introduced practical video or e-learning training modules.
  • Taking steps to monitor compliance – it may be relatively straightforward to describe control measures in a risk assessment but the real challenge will be for businesses to implement the measures identified in practice and find ways to encourage and monitor compliance.
  • Being prepared to change and adapt – the risk assessment is not a static document but is part of a risk management cycle. Businesses will need to monitor whether the steps taken are working and if not, be prepared to change them (including if wider circumstances change).
  • Considering impact on other risks – businesses should not deal with COVID-19 risks in a vacuum but must consider how they impact on other non-COVID-19 related risks and processes. For example, this will include taking into account that some jobs are more safely performed with two people and some need to be supervised. Those on site will need to identify the safest way to perform an activity in light of all relevant considerations.

Ultimately, the construction industry should be as well placed as any to manage the issues presented in making a safe return to work. Health and safety is already a deeply ingrained part of daily life on site, where workers are accustomed to wearing PPE and interacting with dedicated health and safety professionals and where the safest way to complete an activity (in all the circumstances) should drive working practices above all else.

This article was written by Campbell Hutcheon and Zara Din

Key contact

Steven James

Steven James Partner

  • Construction and Engineering 
  • Energy, Power and Utilities
  • Construction Disputes

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