Coronavirus - Construction sites shutting down

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Article

01 April, 2020

With Government policy that construction sites should remain open during the coronavirus lockdown, a health and safety law expert believes it'd be wise for bosses to consider stopping operations to avoid needless risks and breaches of health and safety.

David Mayor, Insurance Associate at Forbes Solicitors, explains:

"Although we are already seeing some construction sites close because of staff absences and supply chain disruption caused by coronavirus, the Minister for Business and Industry Nadhim Zahawi is urging construction sites to remain open. He makes the point that some jobs, such as building, cannot be done working from home.

"With this in mind, it seems a logical viewpoint that construction remains ongoing. However, just because a work task cannot be done at home, it doesn't immediately follow that it should continue to take place during the lockdown. There are a number of Government guidelines in place to stop the spread of coronavirus and adapting working practices on construction sites is likely to prove a compliance minefield that does little to improve health and safety and avoid risk.

"Public Health England (PHE) guidelines for going to work during the coronavirus outbreak specify that, where possible, workers maintain a 2 metre distance from others. Construction companies may well think that large sites can accommodate this, but is that always the case with every task that must be completed, even on large sites? Bosses and employees must consider instances where keeping the 2 metre distance can't be observed and the risks this causes, as well as the impact of maintaining the distance.

"Would keeping 2 metres apart put another worker at risk of a fall? Does social distancing lead to workers walking further and bearing heavy loads for longer? How practical are tasks that require teams of people to work closely together when moving heavy equipment and materials?

"Looking beyond social distancing, PHE guidelines also stipulate employees should wash their hands with soap and water often for at least 20 seconds (or use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water is not available). Companies should also frequently clean and disinfect objects and surfaces that are touched regularly, using standard cleaning products.

"How practical is it for construction workers to regularly stop and wash their hands? If they do, what's the implication for a company of an accident resulting from wet slippery hands? If regular hand washing isn't observed, could a business be accused of promoting the spread of COVID-19?

"Similarly, objects and surfaces on site will be touched countless times as workers share tools, use handrails, open and close safety gates, and pass materials between themselves. Companies must look at how possible it is to rollout regular cleaning regimes and ensure surfaces are dry and safe to use before work recommences.

"Adapting site practices and processes to follow coronavirus guidance will take methodical risk assessments. Even then, scenario planning raises many worst-case scenarios, where it will take considerable measures to effectively manage and avoid risk.

"If PHE guidelines are followed, companies have a duty both to ensure these are then properly implemented, and to maintain accurate health and safety/OH records. However, this still wouldn't guarantee the virus prevention measures don't inadvertently expose workers to other risks on site.

"If the guidelines aren't adhered to, workers may well be able to make reasonable claims they've been exposed to catching and spreading the virus when working on site. Although such claims could be difficult to prove, they will be as equally challenging to dispute.

"Given how quickly coronavirus is spreading, there simply isn't sufficient time for construction sites to take the necessary steps to effectively adapt practices in line with PHE guidelines. Exceptions could be made for critical construction sites, such as where hospitals are being built, but this would require special measures. This could involve additional and specially trained resource dedicated to constantly monitoring prevention practices.

"In the current climate, it doesn't seem viable for all construction sites to remain operational without jeopardising both employees and employers. Workers could be put at needless risk of infection and injury, while companies leave themselves facing potential breaches of health and safety legislation and industry regulations. Some sites would be better giving consideration to closure and accessing Government support to help cover wages and the impacts of business interruption caused by coronavirus."

For more information contact David Mayor in our Construction & Infrastructure department via email or phone on 01254 222416. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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