By Bob Thompson
As with every country, the United Kingdom has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unlike some European countries, the construction industry here in the UK has largely been given the go-ahead to continue work. Of course, this is dependent on extensive and regular reviews of our health and safety procedures and working instructions. The issue of whether a site can remain open and working is largely at the discretion of clients, hence government sponsored projects endeavour to continue whilst house builders have, in a number of cases, decided to remain closed. FPS members are therefore currently focusing on keeping employees safe and, in many cases, sites open where we can get adequate materials and put measures in place to ensure social distancing.
Maintaining the government recommended 2m distance has understandably been a logistical challenge for many sites. From creating one-way corridors with designated passing areas, restricting the number of people in vehicles and canteens through to introducing day/night shifts. Other examples are reducing personal contact by tying doors open, shortening work hours (to reduce the need for breaks) and electronically distributing documents.
Accommodation has also proven a difficult challenge. Many hotels have reduced capacity and are only accommodating essential workers. Unfortunately for the construction industry while construction is essential it appears that many of our usual accommodation facilities do not see construction workers as essential. Furthermore, where workers can get accommodation there is no guarantee that hygiene standards are being adhered to. In some cases, on-site accommodation has been provided as an answer to regulating hygiene and reducing travelling time to site, although this is only possible for our bigger sites/members.
Where work on site is not possible, our members have been able to participate in the UK government’s employee “Furloughing” scheme, whereby in order to prevent redundancies, the government pays the company a grant of up to £2500 per month to have workers still on their payroll but at home and not working.
Along with on-site activity FPS Committees have been eager to continue their work. All committee meetings are currently being taken via virtual conference calls – a steep learning curve for all involved!
Keen to continue with our harm reduction initiatives, the FPS Plant, Safety and Operations committee have internally circulated two health and safety documents for review. One with the objective of creating an industry standard for exclusion zones and the other to help FPS members maintain commitment to wherever reasonably practicable automate manual handling. We are hopeful that the exclusion zone handbook can be refined and presented to the wider industry – so that main contractors will respect the space we need to operate piling rigs safely.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of our work have been able to continue as normal. Our next Early Careers Groups meeting, focusing on diversity within the industry, has been postponed until later in the year. It was decided to postpone this meeting instead of virtualising it, as virtualising runs the risk of dampening the impact of a highly important issue. If nothing else, it gives us something to look forward to once lock-down has been lifted.
The big questions for everyone is how do we get through the crisis, how long will it last and what will our industry look like on the other side?