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March 25, 2020

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‘Non-essential construction must end to keep workers and public safe’

Government must give clearer guidance on building sites says British Safety Council.

Investors and contractors on construction siteAs the UK heads into at least three weeks of lockdown, concerns are being raised across the country as thousands of construction workers headed out to work, including on packed London Underground trains.

On Monday 23 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave an instruction that everyone should stay at home for all but the most essential reasons. This morning the Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove said all major construction work should go ahead but jobs carried out at close quarters in someone’s home would not be appropriate. A tweet from the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “If you are working on site, you can continue to do so. But follow Public Health England guidance on social distancing.”

Construction workers have raised concerns that they are not able to practice social distancing and stay at least two metres apart from one another on site. A UK-based worker told SHP: “I do office refits and have to commute to work with three others every day then go back to my wife who works for the nhs in the hospital.

“I’m scared I could get it at work, or on the way, and pass it to her. Our work is definitely non essential and could wait. I am not self-employed, nor am I too bothered about wages. Health comes first for myself and others. I feel we are here because of the money side of things.”

Another, working for a ground maintenance company, said: “We work outdoors, and are taking extra precautions. However, we have been stopped by police and informed that litter picking, emptying dog waste bins and grass cutting is non-essential and should stay at home. The government guidelines are conflicting and not clear with regards to workers who are unable to work from home.”

The Chair of the British Safety Council, Lawrence Waterman, said: “The construction sector needs clarity from the government – on most sites social distancing will be impossible or simply unsafe. All non-essential construction should end now so that construction workers can go home and stay home like everyone else.”

“Some building work will be deemed essential – for example, building work that will improve access to hospitals or road access which will help tackle the virus. It is also the case that half-built buildings need to be made safe and workers should prioritise work that can safely suspend construction for as long as necessary.”

He went on to say: “Many thousands of construction workers are self-employed and don’t get paid if they don’t go to work. The government and developers need to work together to ensure that workers are protected when their building sites are shut down. We can’t have scenes like this morning when the country is told to stay at home, but the tubes are crammed full of people setting off to work on a building site.”

On Monday, Mr Waterman, the former Head of Health and Safety for the London Olympics called on the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2020 games.

Should construction be closed?

There has been some criticism aimed at the construction industry for keeping sites open, with the BBC claiming that ‘Construction workers fear for their safety.’

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said that building work could continue, despite the spread of COVID-19, provided it can be done safely in the open air. But, so far, housebuilder Taylor Wimpey is one of the few construction firms that has announced it is closing its sites and the construction industry seems to be split on the correct course of action. Photos have also emerged on social media of workers crammed into tube trains and on crowded building sites, which have caused anger and concern. Rival politicians, unions and workers themselves all warn that the work is non-essential and putting people’s health at risk.

Sites in Scotland have been shut, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying that building sites “should close for the period of the efforts to combat this virus”. London Mayor Sadiq Khan told the BBC: “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.”

Do you work in construction? Is your site still open? Are you concerned for your safety and the safety of the wider public? Let us know in the comments below, or send an email to [email protected], where your comments will be treated anonymously.

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Tim Griffiths
Tim Griffiths
1 year ago

For a long time now, the big companies have been making nice profits for their shareholders on the backs of the self employed. It would be nice if they supported their subbies instead of washing their hands and expecting the Government to step in.
Further up the chain it would be nice if clients relaxed programme penalties at all sizes of contract without being asked.
Then I’ll believe that safety is more important than money.

Grant Ross
Grant Ross
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Griffiths

Completely agree. I’m an ex-tradesman myself, now work within H&S training. Companies should now step up and help out their workers. Construction employment is volatile enough and the workforce need proper guidance on this matter.

Les Whitehouse
Les Whitehouse
1 year ago

Tim Griffiths comments are very valid but there are other problems. The problem with the construction continuing – risk assessments on site or not – is also that many workers work far away from home. Not only are they worried about carrying the virus home to loved ones, even if they are only streets away, they also are away from family in many contract cases for at least a week at a time. Some jobs would genuinely classify as essential work, but most hotels and boarding houses have either closed or do not want to take the risk in allowing… Read more »

Tim Griffiths
Tim Griffiths
1 year ago
Reply to  Les Whitehouse

Les, I agree that there are lots of problem areas that the decision makers are not aware of. Even the definition of essential work can come down to a particular stage of work on any individual contract. Half finished work always has some risks. The industry from client through management to main to sub contractors have to work together to keep the worker at the bottom of the chain as safe as possible. If for a client that means getting your contract late or at greater cost, you have to accept it and also make sure that the cash is… Read more »

1 year ago

we are ground maintenance company and work outdoors, and taking extra precaution, however we have been stopped by Police and informed that litter picking, emptying dog waste bins and grass cutting is not essential and should stay at home. The gov guidelines are conflicting and not clear with regards to workers who are unable to work from home