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Clients’ response to construction covid-secure working measures ‘mixed’

On construction sites around the country, social distancing and covid-19 protocols are now the norm. Here, NG Bailey staff are pictured at the Manchester Town Hall project.
NG Bailey staff socially distancing at the Manchester Town Hall restoration project.

Clients have given a “mixed” response to the construction industry’s efforts to keep working through the coronavirus pandemic under covid-secure measures, a new report has found.

The Protect Covid-19 National Core Study, written by the Thomas Ashton Institute (a collaboration between the Health and Safety Executive and the University of Manchester), used survey and interview data from four principal construction contractors to highlight the challenges the sector has faced while playing an important role in keeping the country running during the pandemic.

The report found that control measures had been “largely successful” in limiting virus transmission in the workplace, thanks to effective dialogue, a well established safety culture, and modified working practices.

But it also found that clients’ response to the measures had been “mixed”, with some trying to exert pressure to minimise delays and costs, potentially compromising workforce safety. Other clients had been “inconsistent”, the report found, with disrupted communications and changes in attitude. But others still had been “overly cautious”, sometimes insisting on measures ill-suited to particular projects.

The report found that there was an “apparent uncertainty” regarding the contractual implications of covid-19 and its impacts on delays to construction work and increased costs, in particular the applicability of “force majeure” provisions within construction and associated insurance contracts.

Meanwhile, the research revealed that factors largely outside of employers’ control, such as travel, socialising and living arrangements of the sector’s diverse workforce, have made it harder to control transmission. It concluded that transmission is a continuous societal risk from which the workplace cannot be entirely insulated.

And it also found that covid-19 responses in some parts of the construction sector have become less effective, with a reduction in worker compliance with control measures.

It recommended a continued commitment to safety and continued engagement with workers to control and reduce transmission of the virus.

Professor Neil Bourne, director of the Thomas Ashton Institute and co-author of the report, said: “Construction workers have played a vital role in keeping the country running throughout the pandemic, despite huge challenges at all levels. We found that frontline staff were worried about not only their physical and mental health, but above all the economic impact of the pandemic on themselves and their families.

“We are talking to subcontractors in the industry now to better understand their perspectives and develop our recommendations. It was clear that the overriding pressure in the first phase of the pandemic was from work already committed to; as one director we interviewed told us: ‘Covid may have changed the world, but not the contract on this job!’”

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