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Covid-secure construction – applying government guidelines on site

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United Kingdom

As sections of the UK economy are told they can resume operations, the government has produced "Covid-secure" guidance for the construction and outdoor work sectors.

  The UK government's "Covid-secure" guidelines for the construction outdoor work sectors apply widely to cover: 
  • Construction;
  • Energy and utilities;
  • Farming and agriculture;
  • Forestry;
  • Waste management;
  • Other infrastructure;
  • Railway services; and
  • Street and highway services.  
The relatively comprehensive guidelines include checklists for each aspect of working life within these sectors, but do not supersede existing health and safety regulations applicable to the construction and outdoor sectors, such as the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations and the Working at Height Regulations.
 
Further guidance should be prepared by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or the government regarding the interplay between these regulations, as those operating within this sector may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applicable regulation.
 
Although the construction guidelines are not (at this stage) legally binding, employers are encouraged to follow them to minimise the risk of enforcement action by the HSE.
 
Once implemented, employers can download a notice to confirm that they have complied with the relevant guidance.
 
Fundamental health and safety principles for construction and outdoor work
 
Three fundamental principles underpin the government's health and safety recommendations for construction and outdoor work.
 
These are:
 
1. Covid-19 risk assessments
 
In addition to the construction or outdoor work specific risk assessment that is already required by law, a Covid-19 risk assessment will need to be undertaken and should be completed before operations resume.
 
Although risk assessments are not meant to be cost or resource-intensive, employers who try to follow all the comprehensive measures may incur significant cost and time in redesigning their workplaces and operations, which will be at their own expense.
With business operations encouraged to resume this week, this also affords operators very little time to make significant changes.
 
The risk assessment must be carried out in consultation with unions or workers, and the employer must make sure the risk assessment addresses the risks of Covid-19.
 
The employer should consult workers and a health and safety representative selected by a recognised trade union, or a representative chosen by workers, although there is no further guidance on what to do in the event that risk assessments cannot be agreed.
 
There may be strong pushback by a number of workers and trade unions in connection with risk assessments in these sectors due to the nature of the work and the need for proximity to other workers for certain tasks.
 
The construction guidelines make clear the HSE will seek to take enforcement action against operators who do not have robust risk assessments in place.
 
Once the risk assessment has been prepared and agreed, the guidelines stipulate employers must share the results of the risk assessment with their workforce and are encouraged to publish the results on their websites.
 
This becomes an expectation for employers of more than 50 workers.
 
2. Knowing your workforce
 
Employers should consider who among their workforce can work from home and identify clinically vulnerable individuals (CVIs) and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals (CEVIs).
 
CEVIs have been advised by government not to work outside the home and employers should abide by this.
 
If CVIs cannot work from home, they should be offered the option of the safest available on site-roles, enabling them to stay two metres away from others. If they have to spend time within two metres of others, employers need to assess whether this involves an acceptable level of risk, although it is unclear what this means in practice and in reality will be a subjective assessment.
 
3. Social distancing and hygiene
 
The control measures that need to be implemented once a risk assessment is completed broadly cover social distancing and hygiene, which are the most effective ways of tackling the spread of Covid-19.
 
Where social distancing cannot be maintained for a particular activity, businesses should consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate, and if so, the business should take all mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff.
 
Mitigating actions include further handwashing provisions, keeping activities as short as possible, using protective screens and using back-to-back or side-to-side working.
 
Employers should pay close attention to common areas and entrances/exits which are at risk of overcrowding and implement measures to minimise the spread of infection, including staggering entry/exit times, opening more entrances and exits, closing off or limiting other common areas and introducing one way systems.
 
Before a site reopens, an employer should ensure the site or location is clean and ready to restart. Once the site has reopened, there should be frequent cleaning of work areas and equipment and the employer should provide additional handwashing/hand sanitisation facilities.
 
Employees and others should be reminded by regular signage and communication of good hygiene and handwashing techniques.
 
Considerations when implementing construction guidance
 
Although the construction guidelines are welcome, employers will need to carefully evaluate how best to protect the health and safety of employees and others who come into contact with their business, as far as reasonably practicable within their specific work contexts.
 
It is anticipated that the HSE will actively enforce penalties for Covid-related failures, and those operating in the construction and outdoor industries will likely err on the side of caution when implementing measures, even if this proves very cost and time-intensive.
 
Further clarity is needed as to how Covid-security measures fit with existing health and safety rules, to avoid operators falling foul of the myriad regulations.
 
As the guidance is expected to be updated in the coming months, employers will hope to see further information in this regard.
 
For further information, please see our previous articles discussing Covid-19-related health and safety on construction sites: 
 
If you have any health and safety-related questions or concerns about your projects in light of the coronavirus outbreak, Fieldfisher's health and safety and/or construction and projects team would be happy to discuss your specific circumstances with you.
 

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