24 March 2020

Social distancing on construction sites – policy v reality

This guidance was originally written on 24 March and updated on 30 April 2020

Construction sites that remain open will need to have extra health and safety measures in place to enable social distancing, as well as all the normal considerations on complex projects.

We are now seeing a tension between policy and reality – from a health and safety perspective, the protection of workers in close contact (i.e. less than two metres) can only be possible by using additional engineering and administrative control, safe work practices and PPE.

Control measures

A hierarchy of controls could look like:

  • using engineering controls
  • using administrative controls
  • deploying safe work practices to protect workers from exposure to Covid-19.

Depending on work tasks and potential exposures, appropriate PPE for protecting workers from the virus may include gloves, masks, goggles or face shields, and/or respirators.

Reasonably practicable measures

At the very extreme, on one end of the construction spectrum, you could have those in fit-out scenarios wearing face-fit masks and some sort of haz-mat suit, but always bearing in mind that the employer is taking ‘all reasonably practicable measures’.

It may be ‘reasonably practicable’ to stop fit-out work, but potentially on the same site it may be ‘reasonably practicable’ to continue external construction with the correct PPE/safe system of work, for example.

Work arounds

Perhaps a possible work around is for construction sites to review the order of work/tasks to be performed.

Another option could be some sort of rotation, thereby keeping a minimum number of workers on the site at any one time. I suspect that site offices will need to be carefully managed, too, given their usually cramped conditions.

The following paragraph was added on 30 April 2020:

With this in mind the Construction Leadership Council has issued new site operating procedures which can be found here (https://www.constructionleadershipcouncil.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Site-Operating-Procedures-Version-3.pdf).  Please note that the site operating procedures are based on Public Health England guidance and as such other restrictions may apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Defensibility

Ultimately the site health and safety manager in conjunction with the site managers/contractors need to consider whether work on the site can, on the one hand be performed safely, bearing in mind the risk of exposure/spreading the virus, whilst on the other hand weighing up the cost of doing so.

To a certain extent this will depend on the size of the site and the stage of work, and will rely on sites being effectively policed by health and safety representatives and contract managers.

If a site decides to remain open – and from a defensibility point of view – it is paramount for a detailed risk assessment to be documented and a detailed tool box talk to be devised and disseminated to all workers setting out the specific requirements.

For live sites, this ought to have been undertaken at the latest this morning (or just before site activity commenced). Any new risk assessment ought to be dated and read, understood (or be explained to them) and then signed by those at work. This should then be actively monitored as the working day progresses.

The following paragraph was added on 30 April 2020:

The HSE’s stance

During a Q&A session on 30 April 2020 with the Health and Safety Executive I asked how businesses will be regulated during times like these. Martin Temple (Chair of the HSE) stated quite clearly that businesses need to demonstrate that they have taken all reasonably practicable measures to safeguard employees’ health and wellbeing at work. He stated further that adherence to the advice provided to various sectors by Public Health England is likely to demonstrate a business taking all reasonably practicable measures.

Points to implement as a minimum

  1. Assess risk to workers, record it in writing and act on it (as you will have been doing in any case). New risk assessments should have been undertaken today.
  2. The risk assessment must account for social distancing of 2m as per Government guidance.
  3. If social distancing cannot be maintained, make alterations to achieve it, e.g. by prioritising work which can be done at a social distance or limit number of workers in any one place.
  4. The Coronavirus Bill has in it police powers to detain people – we will need to consider how this applies in the workplace/construction sites/public spaces.
  5. As a final point please check your insurance policy prior to closing a site for any policy exceptions.

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About the Author
Kamal Chauhan, Partner

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