Like many other industries, construction has had to embrace digital transformation at a rapid pace through the global health pandemic. What is different from other sectors however, is that this scramble to embrace technology is not just to keep our sector operational, it’s fundamentally to keep our workers safe.
Construction has had to adapt in the face of the pandemic in a way like no other sector. Workers haven’t been able to stay safe at home and work remotely. To keep the industry ticking over they have had to show up on site regardless of the hidden dangers of a deadly virus. In April, a total of 2,434 construction sites were shut down due to coronavirus related issues.
Across the sector we have faced COVID outbreaks on site, site closures and a marked drop in productivity. The Construction Product Association is predicting 2021 construction output to be 6.4% lower than pre COVID levels. The health of our employees is our chief priority, but we also need to ensure our business remains viable to ensure our employees keep their jobs.
The construction industry contributes £117 billion to the UK economy, which is 6% of the total economic output. There are 2.4 million jobs in the sector, which is 7% of the UK total. The industry as a whole has a responsibility to protect workers, ensure our sites run safely and productively, ensure jobs are not lost and we keep contributing to a struggling economy.
Where other industries could digitally transform their operations by selling products or services online, this simply hasn’t been possible in construction. While construction workers have been permitted to keep working through lockdown which is welcome, this has only been part of the solution for our business. The other solution needed was about how to keep our workers safe with no specific workplace measures to protect them.
What we found was that expecting workers to socially distance 100 per cent of their working day was unrealistic, and PPE and signage was not enough to protect them from potential infection. The use of PPE relies on an honour system, or just an assumption that workers will use it at all times, which is unrealistic. Everyone is human, and everyone makes mistakes.
The NHS track and trace system might be effective for tracking individuals after they have been in contact with an infected person, but this is too late for a construction site. Once an infection breaks out on site, it is at risk of being spread and the site being shut down. The construction industry needs to ensure that infections are tackled preventatively and swiftly to ensure there is no widespread infection and a project can keep operating.
There are many ways to mitigate risk, but now our understanding of COVID-19 is more developed the construction industry needs to do more to eradicate that risk from the workplace. We have developed a social distancing system called WorkSafe that will help employers identify where and when workers are not socially distancing. The aim is to spot regular social distancing breaches, to better organise people flow and apply only the necessary health and safety precautions to specific areas. This will ensure drastically reduce social distancing breaches in the workplace, removing some of the risk from COVID-19.
Furlough payments from the government to the construction sector totalled £3.7 billion by September 2020. When that scheme ends we will not be able to save every job. There will be tough choices and bumps in the road ahead, but the next six months will define if we can truly ‘build back better’. The contribution of this industry is invaluable to the future prosperity of the UK.
Things are improving – the Building Safety Group has reported that there has been a decrease in COVID breaches, including social distancing in the past 6 months. We’re not there yet but the industry is adapting better to the new normal and digital tools are helping.
More needs to be done though. The government and trade leaders should also be ensuring that the use of technology to make work sites safer is part of official safety guidelines. Ultimately putting employee safety first will also lead to better productivity and economic recovery.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we all need to be better prepared in the future. All companies going forwards will need a SARS risk management protocol at the heart of their business. And above all, we need to ensure we protect the health and safety of workers – now and into the future.
The nation’s recovery is being pinned on ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’. We must air on the side of caution when celebrating investment. It is not feasible to suggest rebuilding a nation with a workforce that is not being adequately protected. We cannot jeopardise worker safety for the sake of a rush to meet targets.