Posted on 03/04/2020 13:20:15   by   Richard Knight

Construction workers facing the Coronavirus conundrum

In a nutshell

Some are now saying that there's a growing risk to these workers' safety and that the government needs to offer more clarity on how construction can proceed whilst taking everyone's safety into account.

Abstract: Twenty-four hours after Boris Johnson addressed the nation on 23rd March 2020 stating that British people should stay at home to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, some construction workers were left feeling angry and unprotected.

Johnson clearly stated that unless it was "absolutely necessary", all workers should work from home or stop going into their place of work altogether.

Despite this, construction workers have been given the green light to carry on, begging the question, "what construction is deemed essential, and how can the workers' safety be preserved?"

A growing concern

When the BBC broadcast Boris Johnson's address, it was like something very few people had ever seen in their lifetimes. Not many Britons today can remember the sombre wartime speeches given to rouse the nation during the 1940s, and during the Falklands War in 1982, all the hostile action was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Coronavirus threat and the very serious danger it presents to us all seems very close to home.

As you may remember, Johnson implanted a 3-week lockdown, advising the following;

"From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home.

"That is why people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible.
  • One form of exercise a day - for example a run, walk, or cycle - alone or with members of your household;
  • Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home."

Clearly, construction work cannot be done from home so there is a valid case that workers should carry on attending the sites where they're working. However, what construction work is deemed "absolutely necessary"?

After all, one of the main issues is that many of the workers had to commute on London Underground the morning after this speech, packed onto Tube trains and breaking all the social distancing rules of not being less than 2 metres away from each other.

Senior minister Michael Gove has confirmed that essential building work should continue as long as social distancing guidelines are obeyed, and as construction work is not office based, workers can, theoretically, maintain the 2-metre distance.

However, others have pointed out that it is harder to adhere to these guidelines on crowded sites where hundreds or even thousands of employees have to congregate.

Some construction industry sources have been vocal about the situation;

"Whilst the public are getting mauled for ignoring government advice on social distancing, these companies don't seem to be helping the situation with their sites staying open where social distancing is almost impossible."

Obviously, many workers are scared of catching the virus and taking it back to their families but at the same time fear losing their jobs if they don't show up to work.

A lack of health precautions

The most worrying aspect of this is the fact that on some sites, precautionary measures seem to be reduced when considering just how easily this disease seems to spread.

A crane operator at a London construction site employing almost 500 workers said they felt angry after being told to "just carry on until told otherwise".

"It's scary really - I've got a family and kids at home. I'm in London around all these people and then I'm bringing it all back into an isolated home."

Another worker on the same site reinforced this point;

"If one worker catches Covid-19 and takes it to work, it's not going to take long to rip through a building site. Several workers from Eastern Europe have decided to go home and undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine rather than wait around and take chances with their health in London."

The same source said that workers were given access to bottles of soapy water rather than hand sanitiser gel and only had cold water to wash their hands.

What's more, worryingly, workers need to use the fingerprint scanner around 25 times a day to get in and out of the site. This too then leads to a breach of the government rules regarding social distancing.

What's the government response to this?

The government's stance on construction work continuing has been consistent.

Despite more clarification being needed as to what constitutes "essential work", on 25th March, the UK's Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) said it had received government advice that construction in England can continue if it can be done safely and in accordance with Public Health England (PHE) guidance.

A spokesman for CECA said;

"If for any reason sites and companies are not able to comply with the PHE guidance, then they must cease activities until they can."

In addition, some contractors and organisations have been given the order to close sites or limit the number of workers on projects.

Sir Robert McAlpine has closed many of its sites and Transport for London has halted work on the Crossrail project. What's more, EDF Energy has halved the number of workers at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station currently under construction down to just 2000.

Senior minister Michael Gove added;

"We need to look at the nature of the work that's being done. If you're reconstructing or building a home in which no one is present, then that is appropriate and it can go on.

"However, if we are talking about the sort of construction work that involves a builder coming into a home in order to deliver an extension, that would seem not appropriate and not in line with the clear guidance."

Having said that, many would question whether reconstructing an empty house would qualify as work that is "critical to the nation and to the life of the economy".

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan doesn't agree with Mr. Gove. He stated;

"The government is saying construction workers should go to work, I disagree. I've worked on a construction site. It's very difficult to keep the two-metre distance.

"If it's absolutely critical, then it should carry on. But a lot of construction isn't critical or essential."

Union leaders, too, have been outspoken about the risk that workers face. Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said:

"Photos of crowded construction canteens will horrify the general public and in particular the loved ones of construction workers who fear for their safety.

"No worker should be put at risk by travelling to work, while on site, in any welfare area or undertaking any non-critical designated work.

"However, with well over a million construction workers being officially registered as self-employed, they have a stark choice of working or they and their families facing hunger."

Whilst the general consensus is that workers do indeed want to keep working, they're not willing to sacrifice their health or the well-being of their families.

The Site Operating Procedures Guidance

The Site Operating Procedures guidance states;

"Sites should remind the workforce at every opportunity of the Site Operating Procedures which are aimed at protecting them, their colleagues, their families and the UK population."

The Site Operating Procedures includes important guidance on:

  • Social distancing
  • Self-Isolation
  • What to do if someone falls ill
  • Site access points
  • Hand washing
  • Toilet facilities
  • Travel to site
  • Eating arrangements
  • Changing facilities, showers and drying rooms
  • Cleaning

In addition, anyone who meets one of the following criteria should not come to site:

  • Has a high temperature or a new persistent cough (follow the guidance on self-isolation)
  • Is a vulnerable person
  • Is living with someone in self-isolation or a vulnerable person.

If a construction site is not consistently implementing the measures set out in the Site Operating Procedures, it may be required to shut down.

Is shutting down the right thing?

Housebuilding company Taylor Wimpey announced on Tuesday it will close all its sites to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 among its 16,000 site workers.

"Our number one priority is the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees, subcontractors and customers and we are taking this action because we believe it is the right thing to do."

However, while Taylor Wimpey said it intended to pay the workers it directly employed on its sites, some 2,000 people, the additional 14,000 workers are sub-contractors.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak faces mounting calls to support self-employed builders impacted by the Coronavirus crisis.

Less than two weeks after delivering his maiden Budget, the Cabinet Minister announced a widely praised £350 billion package to help the economy through the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, critics say more backing is needed for those who work for themselves.

Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said:

"We've got millions of self-employed workers right across the country and they're worried about whether they're going to be able to provide for their families at this time.

"Last week we saw the Chancellor announce a job retention scheme for direct-employed workers where the Government would underwrite 80% of those wages.

"We need to see today a similar scheme for the self-employed so they can stay at home and self-isolate in the way that the Prime Minister has asked them to."

The construction sector is one of the largest in the UK economy, employing over 3.1 million people, which is about 9% of the overall British workforce.

Few sectors have such an impact on communities across the UK or have the same potential to provide large numbers of high-skilled, well-paid jobs.

The construction sector reaches every corner of the United Kingdom and is fundamental to our economy. It's the way we invest in our future, building the homes we live in, the schools and hospitals we rely on, and the offices, factories, transport and energy infrastructure that keep the wheels of industry turning.

Because of this, it's evident that the UK government wishes to keep construction moving despite the Coronavirus outbreak. This is also something that healthy workers who are able to work on sites whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines would wholeheartedly agree with.

Developers and builders who are sub-contractors need to earn the money that puts food on their tables and pays the bills, and at the moment they're simply following government advice to keep working.

There's also the thought that certain elements of construction need to carry on, ensuring that many customers about to move into their new property aren't left without access to a home, thus removing the capability to isolate effectively during the Coronavirus.

Many would say, Boris Johnson among them, that construction workers are bravely putting themselves on the front line in order to keep the economy healthier than it would be if all forms of building were to cease.

Workers have a choice to make

There's an old saying that says you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't.

This is effectively where construction workers find themselves at the moment. Should they carry on working as the government has indicated they can, providing they adhere to the health regulations? At least that way, they can pay their bills and put food on the table.

Alternatively, should they stay at home risking a loss of income with no guarantee of a return to work afterwards?

The decision is not an easy one. The government, despite its attempts to clarify what type of work is essential and laying out on-site health guidelines has often been misunderstood or misquoted. The Shadow Cabinet and other members of the industry who disagree say Boris Johnson's rules are ambiguous and confusing.

What's more, any contractor or subcontractor who has left a site by choice in order to self-isolate may find they don't have a job to go back to, or worse still, that they face legal charges. The government certainly needs to offer contingencies for these scenarios.

In the meantime, workers will continue to commute to work and carry on as normal despite the fact that the rest of the world has come to a standstill.