Re-starting construction in Covid-19 environment

Louis Gunnigan from Technological University Dublin on how different jurisdictions are opening up construction sites.

On 27 March 2020, the Irish Government closed the construction industry as part of its measures to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus. Commonly known as Covid-19, this virus was spreading across the world, infecting millions of people taking the lives of hundreds of thousands. 

The measures were to remain in place until 18 May when the industry would begin the process of re-opening. Different countries took different approaches to construction during their Virus Containment phase, many allowing work to continue but with restrictions in place to prevent spread of the virus on-site. As Ireland approached the restart, there was a requirement for consistency across the sites in respect of the appropriate procedures to put in place. Some essential work had continued – that which was deemed essential to stopping the spread of Covid-19 – and lessons learned from this work, in addition to guidance documents from trade and professional bodies, provided a framework for the required procedures for the construction restart. 

To slow the virus, the 2-metre social distancing measure, regular handwashing and surface cleaning/disinfecting had shown effectiveness in slowing the spread of the virus in every country. The restart to construction would set out procedures that would instil this activity into the workplace. 

With that in mind, the following measures have become common on construction sites all over the world to maintain 2-metre distance between individuals: • Reduce congestion by allowing staggered start/finish times for different groups of workers 

• Provide more than one entry/exit point for workers to the site 

• Increase the provision of welfare facilities 

• Stagger meal breaks 

• Assess where congestion might occur and provide one way systems in these areas (e.g. stairs are either up or down, but not both. 

• Where an activity cannot be completed without people working within 2m, carry out a task assessment to determine: o If the task is actually necessary o If the task can be done a different way so as to allow social distancing (e.g. by the use of machinery o If the task can be done safely using extra PPE. 

• Provide extra carparking to allow social distancing when travelling to/from work. 

Extra handwashing facilities would be provided at the entrance to the site and further handwashing stations would be provided at several locations throughout the site. A constant cleaning/disinfecting regime would be introduced to ensure that infection transmission risk would be reduced to a level that was as low as possible. Individuals would be appointed as Covid-19 Compliance Officers to ensure that the measures would be followed by everyone on site. 

To prevent infection on-site, only those who were actually required to carry out work on the sites were allowed to be there. Different countries had slightly different pre-site procedures but most opted for the requirement for the workers to complete a declaration confirming that: 

• they had none of the common symptoms of the virus 

• they had not been in contact with anyone with the symptoms 

• they had not been out of the country in the last 14 days.  

In different jurisdictions and depending on the technology available on-site, this would either be an online or paper-based declaration. On presentation of this declaration, the body temperature readings of the workers would be taken prior to entry to the site and anyone displaying an elevated temperature would not be allowed on-site.  Various pre-return requirements were introduced, such as the Irish Construction Industry Federation C-19 Induction, the issuance of the Covid-19 guidelines from Build UK, and the publication of the OHSA Covid-19 Guidance for the Construction Workforce in the US. Essentially, this guidance is constant across different countries. It is worth noting however that the guidance being given is not a new set of regulations. It is an interpretation of the information that is available that will lead to an acceptable standard of safety in a Covid-19 environment. This will be an important point to consider when the contractual and financial ramifications of Covid-19 on construction operations. 

On returning to work, each worker is required to undergo a site-specific Covid-19 induction, giving details of the measures specific to that site in respect of the logistics onsite, the reporting protocols, the requirements for travelling to/from work and what to do if a suspected case of the virus was found on-site. These inductions are to be reinforced with regular toolbox talks, clarifying updates in protocols and site specific measures as the construction work progresses.  

The use of masks is always a requirement in a dusty environment, but as a Covid-19 prevention measure their use is looked at differently in different countries. In the Far East, they are encouraged, but in Europe there is no clear advice to use them, whilst in the US, there is mixed opinion on their value in a construction environment; a requirement in New Jersey and Washington state; a recommendation in a further handful of states; and not mentioned at all elsewhere.  

Common to all jurisdictions is the increased use of signage, clarifying the new protocols and giving clear direction on the procedures to be followed. 

Depending on the size of the project, some extra measures are being introduced such as: 

• Cameras that read temperature rather than hand held devices 

• Use of wearable technology to establish the busy parts of the site and to assist in contract tracing in the event of an outbreak 

• Roll out of project specific or company specific apps to increase safety (both for information and for processing site check in/out)  

• Split shifts, where the workforce is divided into 2 groups, one starting when the first finishes. 

There are also considerations where the contractor uses migrant labour. This is generally not an issue in Northern Europe, but in the Far East, strict protocols are in place to keep Covid-19 out of such communities, to avoid a repeat of the outbreak in Singapore in several dormitories where such workers were housed. As work recommences, the evidence coming from various countries that worked through the crisis, is that productivity can recover to approximately 80% of pre-Covid levels. The focus is now turning to the cost and contractual issues that have arisen in this crisis. As yet, there is no clear, consistent picture of how these issues will resolved. What will be interesting will be the effect that these measures will have on tender prices and how construction will change into the future.

Louis GunniganProgramme Leader for Campus Development at Technological University Dublin, advises public and private sector organisations on undertaking PPPs. He has published a series of papers on PPPs.