The Government has maintained the position that construction sites should still operate during the current Coronavirus pandemic. In its letter from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, to the UK's construction sector, it outlined the importance of construction in supporting the economy and explained that the Site Operating Procedures (“SOP’s”)published by the Construction Leadership Council aligned with PHE guidance.
However, concerns over health and safety of employees on construction sites has been ongoing, and the Scottish Government issued new guidance on 6 April 2020 that work on construction sites, unless for essential projects (i.e. related to Covid-19, essential public services, or critical infrastructure), should be halted immediately. This is not currently the position in England and Wales, where there is such guidance.
The Health and Safety Executive also recently issued a joint statement with the Trades Union Congress and Confederation of British Industry warning that it will take action against employers not enforcing social distancing measures. The statement said: “… If it comes to the HSE’s attention that employers are not complying with the relevant Public Health England guidance (including enabling social distancing where it is practical to do so), HSE will consider a range of actions ranging from providing specific advice to employers through to issuing enforcement notices, including prohibition notices.”
The consequences of non-compliance could therefore include fines or shutting down activity on site.
Employers were also reminded of their duty to continue to provide workers with information about risks to health and safety as well as the actions employers are required to take in that regard.
The joint statement went further to encourage employees to contact the HSE or their local authority if they had concerns that were not being resolved after discussions with their employer or trade union.
That may provide some reassurance to workers after the HSE announced back in March that it would suspend routine inspections over fears of the coronavirus.
Government sector specific guidance for construction work explains that if it is not possible to follow the social distancing guidelines, it should be considered whether that activity needs to continue for the site to operate, and if so, all mitigating actions possible should be taken to reduce risk of transmission and employees must still be advised to keep 2 meters apart as much as possible.
Other advice includes:
- Instructing employees to wash their hands, and where facilities are not available, hand sanitizer should be used. Handwashing should also be done before getting into, and after getting out of, enclosed machinery. To ensure handwashing takes place, employers are to consider adding additional facilities, providing soap, water and/or hand sanitiser.
- Ensuring skin-to-skin and face-to-face contact is avoided and if face-to-face contact is essential, it should be for 15 minutes or less wherever possible.
- Cohorting small groups of workers rather than mixing crew on different shifts.
- Ensuring ventilation in enclosed machinery and spaces.
The Construction Leadership Council SOPs are being kept under review in response to feedback and an updated version is anticipated.