Coronavirus: Fears for construction workers' safety as UK building sites reopen

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
A construction worker wearing a protective face mask at a building site in central London. (Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson singled out construction workers when he announced an easing of Britain’s coronavirus lockdown this week, urging them to get back to work.

Many needed no encouragement from the prime minister however, with figures suggesting almost three-quarters of building sites in England and Wales were already open last week. Firms are keen to keep projects on track, and many workers reliant on their incomes.

But new data this week shows construction workers have some of the highest death rates from COVID-19. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) cautioned that it did not “prove conclusively” that exposure at work explained the death toll, but the industry is grappling with widespread concerns and even protests over safety on building sites nationwide.

‘Strict’ social distancing plans on sites

Apprentice carpenter Alfie Dillon is among those hoping to get back to work soon, after weeks at home on furlough. “It’s boring sitting around,” he told Yahoo Finance UK.

The 20-year-old from Bow, east London, expects to be back at work within the next few weeks. He is not significantly worried for his own safety, but hopes for concrete policies and guidance about precautions and risks. Johnson’s latest speech left him unimpressed, with “mixed messages” over returning to work.

He knows his employer plans to limit workforce numbers on sites to facilitate social distancing however, and that many sites have installed hand sanitiser dispensers.

New safety measures are now being rapidly drawn up by construction firms across the country, with industry bodies and now the government publishing safety guidelines.

Geoff Wilkinson, managing director of a London-based building standards firm, said a string of policies at his own company had reassured staff that returning to work was safe. “In the early days there was a lot of concern, but that’s tended to reduce over time as people have become more familiar and satisfied suitable measures are in place.”

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Wilkinson Construction Consultants’ office staffing has been slimmed down to just a handful of workers answering phones, each now with their own room. Its surveyors, who typically inspect standards on sites throughout the construction process, have been given face masks, gloves and hand sanitiser and are now only visiting certain sites. 

Site visits must be outdoors rather than in enclosed spaces, two-metre social distancing must be possible and contractors doing the work must have health and safety plans. 

Some of the firms operating larger sites that Wilkinson said his staff have visited in London and south-east England had come up with “really detailed policies.” Workers’ shifts are being staggered to reduce numbers, and new toilet and handwash facilities are being installed.

Analysis by construction data firm Glenigan suggests at least 15% of previously suspended UK projects have now reopened, with large companies like Taylor Wimpey, Vistry and Persimmon using the shutdown period to draw up new measures. 

Taylor Wimpey began reopening its sites last week. Its plans include regular monitoring of compliance with its new “COVID-19 code of conduct,” including “strict” social distancing by staff, sub-contractors and suppliers.

‘You need several trades working together’

Construction workers keep apart as they take a break in London. (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

But social distancing can make standard ways of working difficult on sites, if not impossible. At certain points on more complex sites, “you might need four or five trades at same time working together,” according to Wilkinson.

The Construction Leadership Council proposed a 15-minute limit for breaching the two-metre rule. New government guidance says breaches should only be those essential for the firm to keep operating, be “as short as possible” and involve screens or side-to-side working.

Staggering shifts, lunch and break times across a day to avoid overcrowded sites, canteens or rest areas is also a challenge. Industry guidelines encourage takeaway services and bringing food from home.

“A rota might be a good idea—but would people get shorter hours on less pay?” said Dillon.

The Unite union has warned breaching the two-metre rule at all is “unacceptable,” however. Most importantly, there are big questions about what workers should do if rules are not followed.

Issues can be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, but it has suspended targeted inspection activity of sites during the pandemic. Workers may also fear reprisals in a sector with a history of blacklisting.

‘Pressure on sub-contractors to continue to work’

Some contractors also “put pressure on subcontractors to continue to work,” added Wilkinson, particularly when they may face penalties themselves for delays.

Many site workers are self-employed, with not all eligible for government support schemes and payments only from late May for those that are. “That’s why you’ve seen a lot remain in the workplace.”

The biggest worry for Wilkinson is for workers on smaller, non-essential building projects such as domestic extensions, which appear more likely to have continued throughout the crisis. “They are least likely to have personal protective equipment, health and safety staff and enforcement.”

The threat on domestic projects can be to residents as much as workers. He has stopped his staff visiting occupied homes, but warns small builders may be “spreading the virus from one house to another.” Smaller sites are also less likely to have cabin loos or kitchens, meaning some will use residents’ facilities. 

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Some workers may also be worried about loved ones, rather than their own safety. “People they live with could be in high-risk groups,” added Wilkinson. Hotels are one costly alternative, but contractors report difficulties even finding rooms amid widespread closures.

However safe sites can be made, commuting is another major concern. Unite has called for sites to start at 10am so workers can avoid overcrowded public transport, telling them employers’ responsibilities start “as soon as you head off to work.”

Dillon said he could cycle to his likely next site in Westminster, but said many colleagues lived in Kent and typically travelled at peak hours to London by train. “They won’t be able to come unless they can drive, and then they’d have nowhere to park. There’ll be lots who can’t come back.”

Warnings of weak recovery and legal claims over safety

More sites may be reopening as the government hopes, yet full recovery could be a long way off.

Figures from Build UK suggest the number of open sites is edging upwards, with 73% of sites up and running in England and Wales last week. But fewer are operating in the rest of the UK, and its data also shows productivity levels running at just 71% of pre-virus levels. Reduced workforce numbers and social distancing rules will inevitably slow down some work. 

Firms face other significant challenges beyond safety too. A recent industry survey showed a record collapse in activity in April. Firms reported material shortages, rather than safety concerns alone, had forced many sites to stop work. Many suppliers are still temporarily closed and global supply chains disrupted because of the pandemic. 

In the short-term some firms may struggle to stay afloat with reduced work. In the long-term analysts warn on a weak recovery and lower demand for office space. Pantheon Economics only expects a return to pre-virus activity in 2022. 

Wilkinson expects the crisis may also continue to be felt in other ways well into the future. He expects an eventual surge in legal claims against firms, on behalf of both laid-off workers and those left seriously ill or even killed by COVID-19.