Claire Egerton | 21st May 2020

Are construction sites back to work and what is the new ‘normal’?


Claire Egerton | 21st May 2020

Are construction sites back to work and what is the new ‘normal’?

More construction sites are re-opening, starting work or increasing capacity each day, just less than 2 weeks since Boris Johnson announced the first steps towards lifting the UK’s unprecedented lockdown. They say it takes around 3 weeks to form a new habit but can the construction industry move that fast and will it need to, in order to adapt to its own new ‘normal’ in the post-Coronavirus landscape?

What is the new ‘normal’ for construction sites going back to work, what are its challenges and how can construction sites adapt?

Some construction sites had not stopped but with lockdown easing more are re-opening. In this blog we will explore what the new ‘normal’ is and might become and also what challenges the industry will face in adapting to this new ‘normal’.

Construction sites back to work…some in the construction industry never left

Lockdown was met with mixed reactions across the construction industry – whilst some initially closed all sites until further notice, others kept some sites open, limiting activities and the number of workers on site. Amid calls for clarity, the Government encouraged the industry to continue work on sites wherever it was possible and safe to do so. Workforce and supply availability issues caused suspension of some projects and reorganisation of others but many sites have stayed open throughout, despite the challenges of trying to do so in a lockdown scenario with rapidly evolving and changing advice and requirements further affecting their procedures. Build UK’s 20 May Coronavirus Update reported that, based on contractor member information, 86% of infrastructure and construction sites in England and Wales are open, up from 70% at the end of April. Sites including housing were initially hard hit but seem now to have reopened in strong numbers, based on figures in the same Update.

What is the current new ‘normal’ and what are its challenges?

The effects of COVID-19 have been widely felt across the construction industry. According to Build UK’s 18 May Update, figures from the builder’s conference show a drop in the value of contracts awarded, with those during the first week of May falling to £0.3 billion from an average of £2.08 billion per week, rising to £1.43 billion in the second week of May. Numbers of contracts awarded were also down, albeit rising as May progresses. However, the government needs a kickstart for the economy and construction and development is a big part of this.

Site procedures continue to evolve. In addition to the CLC’s most recent Site Operating Procedures (SOP) (which has been the preferred standard for many in managing COVID-19 on construction sites), the government has introduced its own guidance on working safely during COVID-19 for those working in the construction industry and on other outdoor work. 

Despite such guidance, the industry’s new ‘normal’ is not without its challenges. Reduced manpower, due to sickness, furlough and compliance with the guideline requirements on social distancing etc together with supply chain issues (caused by a simultaneous high demand for and lack of labour and materials) continue to have a significant knock-on effect on projects of all sizes. Furthermore, the fear amongst many, not just in the construction industry, of returning to work and how workers can safely carry out their jobs whilst protecting themselves and those they live with, including those more vulnerable to the virus, must also be considered and faced.

How can work continue safely?

In a similar fashion to the CLC’s SOP, the government’s guidance mentioned above adopts a hierarchical approach to managing COVID-19 risk on construction sites. Employers must assess the risk of working on site and where work cannot be undertaken at home, the ‘2m apart’ rule applies. Where this cannot be achieved safely for a particular activity which is crucial, as many mitigating procedures as possible must be instigated, such as introducing handwashing stations/cleaning procedures and managing how individuals work together, using methods such as staggered working hours. “Extremely vulnerable” individuals are strongly advised to stay at home, and where possible it is suggested that alternative roles or safer “on-site” roles could be offered to those who are “vulnerable”. Additional PPE is considered, albeit is very much seen as a last resort, with an acknowledgement that any additional PPE beyond what construction workers usually use may not be beneficial.

The CLC’s SOP also covers additional points not covered in the government guidance, for example, providing advice on how workers should travel to work, using public transport and shared driving only if there is no other option available (advice consistent with current general government guidelines) and advice on how to manage toilet facilities and canteen areas. It also mirrors the government’s guidance in focusing on how employers can eliminate and reduce risks and it emphasises the importance of social distancing wherever possible and safe. There are though concerns being voiced by some as to how thoroughly the guidance, particularly on social distancing and hygiene etc, is being followed on site.

Developers and main contractors should consider all such guidance carefully and can, and arguably would be advised to, adopt such guidance and recommended measures (or close equivalents) within their own site procedures for active sites. Such measures will also no doubt be considered in a health and safety context by the HSE.

Construction workers showing symptoms of COVID-19 are now eligible to be tested for the virus.  The government’s guidance “Coronavirus (COVID-19) : Getting-tested” has more guidance on this. Employers should ensure their staff are aware of this and ensure that those showing symptoms isolate and seek testing as per the recommendations.

Travel is still difficult for many, which will affect the workforce and those needing to service and visit sites. In London following government guidance and seeking to travel on means other than public transport unless otherwise necessary is undoubtedly challenging, with or without tools, materials and safety gear etc. In London the plan to extend the congestion charge will no doubt increase the challenge here and tubes and trains are still running reduced services and are not all running to the promised levels at the date of writing. Outside London with less availability of public transport in some circumstances, the encouragement to avoid shared driving will hit some workers hard in terms of cost. For the many who regularly commute into London from some distance, using public transport, alternative arrangements will be limited and they may need to consider whether they can safely travel in at non-peak times etc, which could be difficult.

The possibility of greater flexibility on site operating hours has been floated with suggestions of extended hours and weekend working where practical and depending on local context etc. It remains to be seen whether, and if so how, this can work moving forward, but those familiar with this sector will no doubt see many potential hurdles in the path of this approach.

The cost of allowing work to continue safely, to developers, main contractors, suppliers, employers and workers cannot be underestimated and it is not yet clear how these additional costs will be allocated or where the burden will fall of all of the knock-on costs to comply with all relevant guidance and policies etc. It is clear though that there will be cost impact throughout the supply chain.

The outlook

There are most definitely challenges ahead for an industry that is sometimes seen to be slow to adapt, but the importance of the sector to UK economic growth and stability makes success crucial and the willingness of all who work in the industry to stand together to face challenge when needed will enable it to weather this storm.

As ever, the cost of change is currently unclear and will need to be considered and fairly allocated if the industry is to bounce back at an optimum level.

Much more work is needed on planning how this can work moving forward, and we will all no doubt continue to watch developments with keen interest.

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This blog was co-written by Fainche Whelan, Solicitor and Claire Egerton, Partner.