The construction industry was among the first sectors to return to work on May 18th, after the March 28th shutdown for all bar essential construction sites around the country.
In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, contractors were working unilaterally to introduce measures to protect workers. However, to address the issue effectively, a standard set of measures needed to be drawn up and agreed by all stakeholders.
The shutdown presented the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) with an opportunity to take a holistic approach to the problem. The CIF's Health & Safety sub-committee established a Covid-19 working group to devise measures that would bring all on-site work in line with public health guidelines as well as the Government's Return to Work Safely Protocols.
The group devised the Construction Sector C-19 Pandemic Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), which set out how sites would function, how workers should approach their work on site by taking appropriate measures to protect themselves, and what measures they should take when travelling to and from work. It also covers measures to be taken if a person on site displays symptoms consistent with coronavirus infection.
The Covid-19 working group also developed an online induction programme that all persons attending sites must complete before being allowed access. This was done in conjunction with Irish onboarding specialists GoContractor and production company Coop Media. Employees returning to work must also complete a Covid-19 self-declaration questionnaire.
Before sites could open, contractors had to update safety and health plans, safety statements, and other documentation to cover Covid-19 risks.
The overall message of the SOP document is that if a job can’t be done safely and in line with public health guidelines, then it must not be done at all.
A phased basis
The return to work is happening on a phased basis, with more than 150,000 people having completed the C-19 induction, and work only restarting on sites that can work within the SOP.
While temperature measurement is not specified as part of the new SOP, some contractors are taking the precaution of measuring the temperatures of those entering their sites.
David Lee, construction director at Collen Construction, says there was a lot of preparation to get Collen sites ready, explaining that the key to achieving this was taking a collaborative approach with the contractor's workforce and supply chain.
“We successfully reopened our sites as a result of collaborative engagement with our workforce,” Lee explains. “We brought our own employees on site first to make the site compliant with the Collen C-19 policy, the CIF’s SOP document and the national protocol. In most cases, this took a full day. On day two, we started to bring our other contractors onto site in small numbers, ramping the numbers up in a measured and managed way to ensure the health and safety of everybody on site.”
Measures Collen introduced include 20-minute staggered start, finish and break times; additional training around Covid-19; and the appointment of a compliance officer and social distancing marshal on each site. The role of Covid-19 compliance officer is specified in the CIF SOP.
Other Collen measures include temperature testing as people enter sites, separation in canteens and drying rooms, one-way walkways around the site; step-back areas on stairs and landings; and hand-wash hygiene facilities across sites.
According to Lee, all of the measures have worked well, and there has been positive engagement with the workforce.
Dermot Carey, director of Safety & Training at the CIF, played a central role in developing the CIF SOP document. He says that following all the work that went into developing the SOP, as well as consultations with Government and unions to get the sector back up and running, it was "vital that the sector had a good start when we began the process of reopening sites.
“Our message was simple,” he continues. “If you can’t follow the guidelines and work safely, then don’t open. We had a number of companies working through as essential services during the shutdown, and they were able to operate in line with the SOP. The feedback from other workers during the shutdown was that they wanted to return to work, and they were happy to work under a restricted regime.”
Carey says that in the first week after reopening, the HSA carried out in the region of 400 site inspections, which all went very well.
Donal McCarthy, chief operations officer with John Sisk & Son, Ireland and Europe, says Sisk's primary concern is the health, safety and wellbeing of its staff, on-site workers, supply chain partners, clients and the wider community in which it operates.
“We are returning to work in a gradual and phased basis, managing the numbers of people coming to our sites very closely and ensuring everyone knows what is expected of them. The people who can work from home will continue to do so.
“It is early in this return-to-work phase, but we are pleased the way things are going,” he adds. “All of our sites are working in accordance with the CIF SOP. Everybody returning to work on a site has to complete a Covid-19 training module before accessing our sites. This is just one of the ways we are ensuring that all our people are aware of the need to follow the new operating procedures to stay safe,” he concludes.
Robbie Cousins is editor of Construction Magazine, the official journal of the Construction Industry Federation