Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, construction sites in England are still open and putting workers at risk. Is this a case of putting profit over people? Christine Murray reports
There’s a stark white-collar, blue-collar divide when it comes to the threat of COVID-19 in England. While the corporate offices of property developers remain closed, with employees furloughed or working from home, many construction sites are still open.
Scotland forced all construction sites to close, with the exception of those serving the pandemic, and Wales introduced health protection regulations to maintain social distancing on sites or face unlimited fines.
But building work was still being carried out on some sites across England during the first stages of the lockdown and the government has now singled out construction as one of the first work sectors that can return to work immediately as it eases restrictions. Fears are mounting that this has and will place communities, workers and their families at risk.
A cross-party group of 50 MPs has written to business secretary Alok Sharma, asking him to ban all inessential work. The group says building work “should be restricted to construction firms involved in supporting health, emergency services, essential post-Grenfell safety work and works essential to the public”.
Meanwhile, a petition on the UK government website to close construction sites has reached more than 5,000 signatures.
Reports shared as part of a grassroots #ShutTheSites campaign include video footage from HS2’s clearing of an ancient wood in a coronavirus-hotspot that features a worker with a persistent cough.
Critical care nurse Dave Carr has begged construction workers to stay home in a short video published by Reel News. “If they can bail out the bankers, they can bail out the construction workers,” Carr says, asking workers to lobby their unions.
The government’s latest guidance even states face-to-face contact on-site is permissible: “You should plan work to minimise contact between workers and avoid skin-to-skin and face-to-face contact. Where face-to-face contact is essential, this should be kept to 15 minutes or less wherever possible.”
It also minimises fears concerning coughing on site, even though workers with a persistent cough should self-isolate: “You should advise staff to wash their hands frequently using soap and water for 20 seconds, and especially after blowing their nose, sneezing or coughing.”
The guidance follows the farce of the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) withdrawing its updated site operating procedures enforcing two-metre social distancing, just hours after it published them on 1 April. It replaced them with the less stringent advice it had issued on 23 March, which only suggested that two-metre social distancing was a good idea, after building firms advised that the new procedures would force sites to close.
The CLC updated the procedures again on 15 April, with version three advising on alternative ways of working, such as limiting the number of workers in a space where social distancing is not being observed. However it falls short of mandating social distancing or recommending wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect against virus transmission, except as a “last resort”.
“If they can bail out the bankers, they can bail out the construction workers”
Guidance for construction workers differs vastly from the government’s message to other citizens in its ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ campaign. Before the easing of lockdown restrictions, health secretary Matt Hancock warned that even outdoor exercise could be banned and the police admonished park-goers for loitering in public spaces.
There’s also a concern that active construction sites are using vital PPE, including the commonly used FFP2 and FFP3 masks, at a time of international shortage. Since it closed its sites on 24 March, Barratt Homes has donated more than 2,300 PPE items to UK hospitals including masks, gloves, overshoes, goggles, antibacterial wipes and hand gel.
Construction workers are speaking out about unsafe working conditions.
Responses to the Construction News coronavirus survey saw 73% of its 1,043 respondents call for sites to be shut. “Our workers are extremely worried about travelling to sites, mixing with other workers, having to call in at petrol stations…” one respondent writes.
Another worker compares the crisis to safety measures for asbestos: “We would have full isolation and ventilation systems in place and full PPE for workers – why is this any different?”
Construction workers have also been whistleblowing to the regional press: “There are people working here who have had heart attacks and people who have poorly families at home who are high risk, so nobody wants to be here – people are terrified,” a Newcastle worker told Chronicle Live. “They are playing with people’s lives by not closing.”
“For asbestos, we would have full isolation and ventilation systems in place and full PPE for workers – why is this any different?”
Singapore has linked 132 cases of COVID-19 to a single construction site, Kenyon/UBS, with an additional 97 linked to the 107 West Coast Vale site and 91 to the Jovell construction site among others.
Italy closed all construction and demolition sites with the exception of infrastructure on 26 March to prevent the spread of the virus.
In the US, Pennsylvania has shut down all construction work, while 29 states have allowed work to continue, 15 have restricted some building works and six remain undecided.
The UK government has suggested construction work must continue for economic reasons. However, this places undue pressure on contractors to continue work under contractual obligations and the threat of financial penalties from property developers and landowners.
The Financial Times has reported that delays to construction will breach existing contracts with landowners and litigation could ensue, as ‘force majeure’ clauses in contracts have not been triggered since government advice holds that sites can stay open. The use of force majeure would also likely to be necessary for insurance claims.
An article posted on law firm Trowers & Hamlins’ website suggests that “each building contract should be checked to understand what the relevant contractor’s entitlements to extra time and/or loss and expense are in these circumstances. For example, a standard industry form, such as the JCT 2016 Design & Build, provides a contractor with an ability to claim an extension of time if, amongst other things, it can show the works are delayed due to ‘force majeure’. The burden of proof in that instance would be on the contractor to establish that because of COVID-19 the works were delayed, the contractor’s failure to perform was due to circumstances outside of its control and that there was nothing that the contractor could reasonably have done to avoid the event or mitigate its effects.”
Solicitor Natalie Taylor of Blake Morgan writes in an article dated 8 April, “Employers/project managers might claim that the change in law has not caused an increase to the cost, or a delay. It is therefore unclear that a contractor would be entitled to additional time or money due to the introduction of the new regulations. What is likely to be of greater concern to contractors (at least in the short-term) is the ongoing lack of clarity around the CLC’s position and whether sites can continue to remain open.”
Some sites have closed, citing material shortages due to COVID-19, which has affected global supply chains.
“What is likely to be of greater concern to contractors is the ongoing lack of clarity around the CLC’s position and whether sites can continue to remain open”
On top of health concerns, subcontractors on zero hours and freelance contracts say government measures to help workers don’t go far enough. Many construction workers do not qualify for sick pay, let alone government help, and if they do, may not be able to hold out until compensation payments are made.
A respondent to the Construction News survey said, “If we don’t attend there is no pay – nothing. No SSP [statutory sick pay], no 80%, nothing… It’s a terrible situation to be in with the rest of my family at home practising social distancing and me still going to work.”
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lighthouse Club construction industry charity has seen calls to its Construction Industry Helpline increase by 25% per week.
“Many of the calls received are from self-employed tradesmen, agency staff or workers on zero-hour contracts who cope from week to week. They are often only one or two paydays away from poverty,” Lighthouse Club CEO Bill Hill says. “One desperate caller to our helpline told us that he was number 22,000 in an online queue to get access to Universal Credit.”
The charity has launched a crisis appeal for donations to provide financial aid to more construction workers.
Hill also calls on government to divert the £54.5m in health and safety fines received by the Treasury in 2018/19 to support construction workers in crisis. “In an industry where two construction workers take their own life every single working day and where 20% of all work absence is due to poor mental well-being, a pandemic such as COVID-19 is always going to have a devastating impact.”
Growing numbers of posts on social media claim to show construction sites where workers are not social distancing. But some of the footage is said to be out of date.
A video posted by the BWI Global Union claims to show Simon Hester, a safety inspector, shouting to the manager of a Pocket Living site in Tottenham about the health and safety risks of allowing unprotected workers to continue to work amid the pandemic. However, Pocket Living says it believes the footage is old, as the site was closed at the time. It adds: “We are constantly reviewing the current situation in accordance with evolving government and industry guidance being issued to the construction sector.”
Pictures of construction workers at the Battersea Power Station site circulated on Twitter in March, but a spokesperson said the site was closed at the time of the posts.
@SadiqKhan Not sure whether the construction industry is one of critical jobs. This photo was taken in the canteen of Battersea power station last Friday. Hundreds of workers squeezed in the canteen. This is a serious problem. Please help! pic.twitter.com/Lfiqbg8Mr9— Victoria (@PingFangHsieh) March 22, 2020
“The Lighthouse Club construction industry charity has launched a crisis appeal for donations during the COVID-19 pandemic
But other developers say their sites continued operating, after brief closures to adjust their practice to match the CLC’s site operating procedures.
Cole Waterhouse said its sites in Manchester and London are now active. “Both contractors took a pause to review and enhance [health and safety] and social distancing measures before returning to site in accordance with government advice,” a spokesperson says.
First Base says its contractor, McLaren, is continuing work on Edward Street Quarter in Brighton. In a statement, McLaren said it has “put in place measures to control access, welfare and site working practices so that they not only meet the guidelines for construction sites but also for social distancing, etcetera”.
British Land has posted a message on its website saying contractor Sir Robert McAlpine (SRM) is conducting limited works at 100 Liverpool Street in London. However, it has replaced the site’s fingerprint entry system with a paper-based process, subcontractors are encouraged to avoid using public transport to travel to the site, and free on-site parking is available.
“We have also been assured by SRM that everyone on site is comfortable being at work. We will keep this situation under daily review and take further action if necessary,” British Land adds.
But not all developers continued with works. Lendlease told The Developer during the first stage of the lockdown that all its sites were “on pause for the near term”.
“Where practical, we will restart work as soon as possible but our priority remains being able to operate safely at those projects. We will continue to liaise with government, industry bodies and other stakeholders about how we can do so. The safety of our employees and the wider community will always be our most important consideration,” a spokesperson for Lendlease says.
“Mace Group, which has reopened several sites, says tit are continuing work ‘for the sake of the UK economy’”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has said it will issue enforcement and prohibition notices to any firms failing to follow Public Health England guidance. However, given HSE has halted routine inspections during the lockdown, it’s unclear what information it will act on and whether it will take any action.
A spokesperson says, “We remain committed to responding to any serious issues that arise in construction or any other sector and our enforcement priorities have not changed. While, in line with government guidance, we have paused all proactive inspections at this time to reduce any risk posed to our own staff and to members of the public, we will look into reports or concerns raised to us.”
The HSE specifies that reports must be made under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 after a worker’s “possible or actual exposure to”, diagnosis of or death resulting from COVID-19: “If someone dies as a result of a work-related exposure to coronavirus and this is confirmed as the likely cause of death by a registered medical practitioner, then you must report this as a death due to exposure to a biological agent using the ‘case of disease’ report form. You must report workplace fatalities to HSE by the quickest practicable means without delay and send a report of that fatality within 10 days of the incident.”
Lisa Pasquale, director of building performance consultancy Six Cylinder, points out another health and safety issue thrown up by COVID-19: the added risk to trained first aid responders on-site in case of accidents. “We’re not trained to treat injuries from two metres away. We can’t effectively deliver first aid to an injured person from a distance.”
The public has been told to stop driving, to prevent road accidents and avoid placing additional stress on emergency response teams. However, there are roughly twice as many serious injuries annually on construction sites as on roads. Last year, there were 54,000 cases of non-fatal, work-related injuries on construction sites, with a third of these requiring more than seven days’ absence from work; in comparison, there were 25,511 serious injuries from road traffic accidents the year before.
“We can’t deliver first aid to an injured person from a distance”
Mace Group, which has now reopened several sites, says it is continuing work “for the sake of the UK economy”. CEO Mark Reynolds says: “Guidance from the prime minister and his cabinet has been clear that construction is a vital element of the UK economy that will be critical in our recovery from this crisis – and that where we can open sites in accordance with the Construction Leadership Council’s standard operating procedures, we should do so as soon as possible”
In an attempt to boost morale, a letter from the business secretary was distributed in March “to everyone working in the UK’s construction sector” in which Sharma extends his “heartfelt and personal thanks”.
“I salute you for the enormous efforts you are individually undertaking to support the UK economy,” he adds.
UPDATE: This article was updated on 12 May to reflect developments around the world and changes in government guidance, as well as statistics and information that have changed since it was first published