The COVID-19 pandemic has flipped our world upside down, we’re all adjusting to the ‘new normal’ and part of that is returning to work. Many workers have been taken off the Furlough system, having been asked to go back to work. This may seem a daunting task in this new world we live in, but there are steps and measures in place to keep the workforce safe.
The Government advice on COVID-19 is ever-changing, it can sometimes be hard to keep up with and confusing. At the moment workers are being advised to work from home where possible, however, this can’t be done by certain sectors – like construction. It can be tricky figuring out if you should be returning to your workplace, this blog aims to help.
Keeping a workplace COVID-secure is essential to keeping them open! On the 10th of September, the Government updated the complete guide for outdoor and construction workers – to ensure they stay safe while working during the pandemic.
Most importantly, it requires by law that employers conduct a COVID risk assessment to keep businesses running. This puts responsibility on employers to make all the changes needed to the workplace that are necessary for construction workers to get back to work.
What is a COVID-Secure Workplace?
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has set guidelines on how to make your workplace COVID-secure. As long as this virus is circulating, there is a risk to all workers. Having a COVID-secure working environment reduces the risk of catching COVID-19 and reduces the risk of it spreading through a workforce (and the general public).
The workplace premises must be COVID-secured before employees, visitors and customers can return – Failure to comply with the rules can lead to legal fines and even prosecution in serious cases. The Government has recently stated “Local authorities also have new powers to close any premises if they believe it necessary to help prevent transmission of COVID-19”.
It’s not all down to the employer, employees are also expected to follow the rules on social distancing, cleaning & hand washing and PPE (where necessary). In the workplace, all staff should be aware of and following the rules put into place by the government – this is the only way to ensure the safety of everyone on site.
Once the control measures have been put in place, any or all employees can return to the workplace in all working sectors; excluding businesses like nightclubs, dance halls and hostess bars which must remain closed by law.
COVID-19 Risk Assessment
The Government has said that it is the responsibility of employers to ensure their workplace has been fully risk assessed before employees return. Employers are required to identify and assess the risks and put the proper controls in place.
This should take into account issues like how staff are entering the building and what tasks they’re doing, some workplaces have introduced a phased return to work and phased start times to ensure staff have reduced contact with other people.
There are 3 types of control measures that can be put into place:
- The first set of controls that can be put in place are physical – adding equipment like screens to the workplace. This creates a physical barrier between your staff and potential hazards, reducing the likelihood of staff catching COVID-19.
- The second set of controls are more people-focused, ensuring good hygiene is promoted and workplace tasks are changed to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. This can also include introducing COVID training, adding signs to the workplace to increase awareness and limiting the number of staff and visitors allowed on site. Only essential staff members should be on the premises!
- The last set of controls involve PPE – masks, gloves, gowns, etc. This must be provided by the employer. It should be considered as a last resort, where social distancing and other measures are not appropriate.
Social Distancing In Construction
Guidelines released by the Government with the aim of reducing the transmission of COVID-19. The rules are that people should keep at least a 2-meter distance from others, this isn’t always achievable. When it isn’t possible to keep 2-meters apart then you should aim to keep 1-meter apart.
If you can’t keep 2-meters apart and have to follow the 1-meter rule other steps should be taken to improve safety. For example, you should try to move your work outdoors where there is a better airflow, if you are inside then there should be good ventilation (windows open, etc) and face masks should be worn.
Handwashing and Cleaning
HSE has set out information on how cleaning and handwashing should be carried out. There should be signs around your workplace encouraging increased person hygiene, including sneezing into your elbow rather than your hand. Employers have to provide handwashing facilities and hand sanitiser for all employees, ensuring social distancing can still take place.
The frequency of cleaning in the workplace should increase to ensure all staff are safe. High-touch areas like light switches, door handles, common spaces (e.g. toilets) and shared equipment should be cleaned more often! In construction, tools like hammers or mechanical equipment must be cleaned after every use to ensure construction workers are not spreading the virus.
Additionally, work vehicles must also be regularly cleaned when in use. Construction work often relies on vehicles to deliver or move goods, therefore it’s essential that vehicles like excavators and cranes are cleaned before and after every use.
Talking to the Workforce and Relaying Information
Employers should involve their employees when taking the steps to become COVID-secure, to ensure they’re always up to date! Staff need to be made aware of any changes made in the workplace and should have input, employees on the ground will know the work environment best and will have good ideas.
It is essential that everyone at work is on the same page, to ensure businesses stay afloat – especially in sectors like construction where there are already many risks in the workplace (from manual handling, COSHH, Working at Height, etc). HSE has published a guide aimed at employers, to help them communicate effectively with their employees. For more information, you can click here.
Working From Home and Protecting Vulnerable Workers
Where possible, the Government has advised that people should work from home. This isn’t always applicable however, even sectors like construction have admin work to do – filling out paperwork, HR services etc. This should be done from home where it’s reasonable to reduce workers’ contact with others.
If a member of staff has a pre-existing health condition or disability the Government has given guidance on reasonable adjustments, for example – creating a COVID-secure pathway through the workplace for these staff members. Where this is not possible, every step must be taken to allow them to work from home. When working from home, employers should keep in regular contact to ensure staff wellbeing and any equipment needed should be provided.
There are groups of people who are more vulnerable concerning COVID-19; people with higher BMIs, older males, pregnant women, health conditions like diabetes, the elderly and BAME backgrounds (black, Asian or minority ethnicity).
Employers should support these groups by discussing the controls that have been put in place and emphasising the importance of workforce compliance with the rules. Research has shown that the construction industry has an ageing workforce. Ensuring construction sites have all the appropriate control measures is a key part in the effort to keep all construction workers safe.
HSE has released guidelines regarding vulnerable working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Critically vulnerable people were asked to shield further from the virus, this is because they have an increased mortality rate. Wherever possible these staff members should be allowed to work from home. If this isn’t practical then employers should involve their critically vulnerable staff in creating a workplace that is safe for them – ensuring there’s good ventilation, social distancing and secure pathways for these workers.
Lastly, in some areas of the UK there are further local restrictions that may be in place. In areas where there are local outbreaks, the Government now has the power to place further lockdown restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. In sectors where working from home is viable, staff should do so to reduce social contact.
In sectors where this isn’t possible, like construction, employees can continue to work in COVID-secured premises. However, there may be limitations on the number of people allowed in indoor workplaces depending on the severity of the local outbreak.
Construction companies should always keep up to date with all national and local restrictions. This will ensure you comply with all new or temporary legislation and keep all your construction employees safe.