From coughs to chaos: COVID-19’s impact on site safety

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Coronavirus has fundamentally altered working practices on construction sites around the world. How are these high-risk environments reacting to the changes? Zak Garner-Purkis investigates

It started with a cough.

Two tradesmen were working in a tight space. The first, a self-employed contractor, sounded pretty sick.

“Are you coughing?” the second tradesman asked. “I’ve just got a bit of a sniffle,” the first replied.

That answer, perfectly sufficient in normal times, didn’t cut it that day. “Get off site!” was the angry response.

“I can’t, I’ve got to work,” the first man retorted.

The two stopped work and squared up to each other. “I’ve got vulnerable parents – I don’t want to take this virus home,” the second tradesmen argued.

Thankfully the main contractor was able to intervene at this point, breaking the two men apart before they came to blows. It wasn’t the first time tensions on site had escalated.

The incident was witnessed by a worker on a major city centre building project, speaking to Construction News on the condition of anonymity. This was one of three potentially serious altercations to take place on the project since the coronavirus crisis began.

“It makes everyone on edge; paranoid,” the anonymous worker tells CN. “Contractors [are] arguing a lot, [there’s] friction on site. People don’t want to go near each other, [and] that’s causing unsafe working practices.”

These types of clashes are just one of the challenges for sites operating amid a global pandemic. Age-old methods for safe working now change almost daily and individuals struggle to interpret constantly evolving government advice as they try to keep projects progressing.

Ever since lockdown began, CN has been investigating how workers, managers and the businesses who employ them have been adapting to these ever-changing dynamics. The question is simple: what is the impact of COVID-19 guidance on safety?

‘Don’t come near me’

The nation has been told that everyone should stay at home as much as possible. That much is clear. The confusion starts whenever anyone leaves their home.

Maintaining a two-metre distance from those outside your own household is the guidance most consistently reiterated. It is fully understood by almost every member of the public. Although it hasn’t been categorically stipulated, contractors have been attempting to build this so-called ‘social-distancing’ measure into their operations.

Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds last week told CN his business went “to extreme efforts” to ensure effective social distancing before reopening any of its sites.

Other contractors have adapted their onsite environments to meet government guidelines while continuing to work. However, there is consensus that for some tasks it is impossible to keep the recommended distance apart.

A senior health and safety manager at a major contractor says their company has made repeated changes but managed to keep working throughout the lockdown. Construction News has agreed to withhold their identity.

“It was very challenging at the start,” they tell CN. “But I think we reacted very quickly and very well. And, you know, you’ve seen massive changes on site, even in the space of a couple of weeks.

“This isn’t a construction industry guidance. This is this is government guidance for everyone. Whether you’re going to Marks & Spencer’s or you’re going to work.”

The tier one source tells CN that they feel some of the criticism directed at main contractors has been unfair: “I feel subcontractors have thrown it back on us as principal contractor, saying, ‘It’s your responsibility to ensure the two-metre rule.’ In some ways, I agree with that, but then in others, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure social distancing.”

The source explains: “If a scaffolder is walking down the high street on a Saturday, he has to ensure social distancing. If he turns up to work on Monday, it’s surely his responsibility. You can’t just pass that on [to] the project manager.”

The sector has borne the brunt of some public policing of social distancing. Easily identifiable in their high-vis jackets and carrying out their duties in the open, it’s far easier to expose a construction worker breaching government guidance than, for example, someone that works in manufacturing.

For already controversial projects like HS2, the two-metre rule represents a new element that is open to scrutiny, especially from sceptics.

First aid at a distance

Not everyone agrees sites can work safely while remaining within coronavirus guidelines. An anonymous whistleblower on one project argues social-distanced working goes against decade-old practices.

“We’ve always worked a certain way and that’s all we’ve ever known,” they tell CN. “All of a sudden, people are throwing in these new rules at us and expecting us to work to them, but we’ve not been given any instruction. When we’ve learned our trade, we’ve been to a college and we’ve been shown how to do this and that. Now we’re just getting pieces of paper thrown at us.”

The source adds: “Some people are really struggling to adapt to this way. It will definitely affect the health and safety of them [and] others [around them].”

“We’ve not been given any instruction. When we’ve learned our trade, we’ve been to a college and we’ve been shown how to do this and that. Now we’re just getting pieces of paper thrown at us”

CN has seen some of these “pieces of paper”. A guide to social distancing from a major subcontractor was leaked to this publication. It features diagrams illustrating how workers can stay separated while working on scaffolding. Drawings of workers next to red-boxed zones indicate where someone can or can’t stand.

The document is comprehensive, but it’s hard to see how a worker dressed in full PPE would be able to use it practically. According to CN’s source, the intricate formations of operatives spread neatly across scaffolding are harder to maintain on the rough and tumble of an active site.

“It only works on paper,” the concerned worker who leaked the document says.

More worrying than paper-based safety guides are some of the answers provided to CN’s whistleblower source at health and safety briefings.

“So we said to him [the health and safety instructor], ‘Say someone has a nasty gash to their arm and they are bleeding? What do we do?’ He said: ‘Stand at two metres [distance] and instruct them on how to administer themselves first aid.’”

The whistleblower adds they were told to drive injured workers to hospital themselves, in response to a question about managing the impact of longer response times from overstressed emergency services.

Shifting sands

Two-metre social-distancing rules might be hard to implement, but at least they are clear.

The guidance given to construction companies about whether to follow them has been anything other than that.

From the beginning, there has been confusion.

A guide for site operations was issued by the Construction Leadership Council on day one of lockdown. It came at a point when many contractors had either blundered their way through the implementation of social-distancing measures or shut up shop.

Many questions were raised with this guidance and the viability of it. An update was always anticipated, but when new advice did arrive, it was rather bizarrely withdrawn hours later.

The hastily withdrawn document said no work on site should continue if operatives were unable to maintain a two-metre distance. A stipulation that, apparently, the industry couldn’t support.

Subsequently, the advice shifted to say work could safely take place without two-metre gaps for periods of less than 15 minutes. Although this measure has been axed too, amid complaints that it was entirely unclear how long workers should wait before they could start another 15 minute session.

Onsite impact

Adapting to the ever-changing landscape has been a challenge for those in charge of site safety. CN’s senior safety source says they send an email to all site managers in the UK on a near-daily basis, updating them on the subtle changes to the guidance.

“It’s a bit of a nightmare,” they tell CN. “But we have to remember these are unprecedented times. There are going to be constant changes – it is going to be part of our day-to-day duties going forward, until this crisis is over.

“[Site managers] will be getting an email from me every second day, with changes to how we work, and we’re going to have to adapt to that.”

The safety leader says there has been frustration among site managers, and they have been forced to “slap a couple of wrists” in order to make sure changes are implemented. But, with the increased workload and constant alterations, the irritation is understandable.

“I’m emailing them every couple of days to add another clause or even down to a couple of words – around social distancing, you know, those couple of words and how [the CLC has] re-worded it has made a massive difference.”

Choices causing accidents

Another onsite challenge is when precautions to tackle coronavirus clash with safety measures on site. The source who witnessed the stand-off outlined at the start of this article describes seeing multiple instances of workers carrying out two-person jobs singlehandedly.

In one case, they witnessed a colleague injure their back after another worker refused to help them lift a heavy item. The operative was so badly hurt they had to stop working and go home.

“Clearly, it was a two-man job,” our source says. “I could see it from a mile away. But the other worker didn’t want to work with them because they were coughing.”

There have been concerns that sparsely populated sites with fewer supervisors might lead to more instances of unsafe working. But, according to the health and safety manager CN spoke to, the opposite has been true.

“We’ve actually seen a reduction in the number of incidents and accidents – a remarkable reduction,” they tell CN. “A lot of the guys are just a little bit more vigilant right now with what’s going on. It’s quite sobering. They’re concentrating on trying to keep the social distancing, and because they concentrate, they’re focusing on the task. Ultimately, it’s reducing accidents.”

Many will be encouraged to hear that safety can improve if those on site act in the right way. The pandemic has placed responsibility for public safety in the hands of individual people to an extent never seen before. In construction, the burden is heavier than in other walks of life simply because the environment is much more dangerous.

“[Safety procedures are] meant to be idiot-proof,” says CN’s whistleblower. “You’re not meant to make the decisions; the decisions are made for you. Now, all of a sudden, we’re being told to ‘make the right decision.’”

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Here are some of the solutions being developed to try to deal effectively with the challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic.

Virtual work experience

Morgan Sindall Construction has been providing school children with virtual work experience using free web service Google Classroom. More than 30 year-10 and year-12 students from 16 schools across the east of England experienced the world of construction virtually over the course of a week, taking part in a number of digital challenges in the process.

Free-standing sanitiser stations

Fit-out firm Lucas UK has designed, developed and manufactured prominent, free-standing handwash stations for construction sites and elsewhere in response to the crisis. The business has put in place manufacturing arrangements that ensure a continuous supply of its own 80 per cent alcohol hand sanitiser, which is certified to international standards.

COVID-marshal training

COVID-19 courses, certified on the Register of Regulated Qualifications by Ofqual, have been launched by construction recruitment firm O’Neill & Brennan to provide coronavirus training for construction workers. The course provides contractors with the opportunity to have a fully qualified COVID-19 compliance marshal on site

Social-distanced coach service

Coach service Snap is providing customised local pick-ups for workers, avoiding tube, bus and train stations. Every vehicle is sanitised between each trip and offers free hand gel to its passengers. Each seat is used only once on each journey, minimising risk further.

Canteen and stairwell screens

Partitioning supplier Westgate has developed a range of modular PVC partitions to enable social distancing. These and similar products from rivals rapidly create segregated spaces that help halt the spread of infection. They can be used to divide shared spaces such as canteens, locker rooms, stairwells and corridors.

Safe-distancing app

Technology provider iTWOsafe has developed an app and wristband combo to help workers measure safe distances. A user’s smartphone connects it to a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device, which can be worn around the wrist or attached to clothes, enabling workers to stay the correct distance apart.

The personnel distancing system

Interserve trialled a similar proximity technology to ensure social distancing on the final phase of the NHS Nightingale hospital build in Birmingham. The contractor’s operatives wore a small device known as a personnel distancing system (PDS). Supplied by workplace-safety specialist Sitezone, it warns users if they are in breach of social distancing restrictions by triggering an alarm.

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