As the lockdown restrictions start to be eased in the UK and businesses, schools, households and shops are taking the first tentative steps in the next stage of the pandemic’s journey, RLB’s Health and Safety Partner Sam Mepham, outlined her thoughts to Construction Manager on how COVID-19 has changed the view of health and safety in every aspect of our lives.
This article appeared in Construction Manager’s June issue and was written when government advice on social distancing was 2 metres.
The impact of the pandemic has brought health and safety to the forefront of the global stage on a scale we have never seen before. For probably the first time ever across the world we are all implementing and embracing its practices in every walk of life. From households to schools from industries to governments – health and safety is, and will remain, a priority as we go through the COVID-19 journey.
And if we have learnt anything from the last few weeks, this is going to be gradual and fluid, something that we will all need to adapt to constantly. Every sector will need to review their working practices to see how they can do things better – from healthcare considering how it can gear up for any further peaks, to offices considering their future commercial viability. Nothing will be the same again.
Flexibility and fluidity are now the driving forces
The pandemic made us take a step back and recognise that we are now looking at our workplaces through a different optic. The health and wellbeing of our staff is truly at the epicentre, something that I personally hope remains.
From an operational point of view, one dilemma will be how to balance the financial health of the organisation with the published government guidelines recommended as best practice to be COVID-19 secure. Some businesses may not want to go to the extent of implementing social distancing measures if they know these will be lifted shortly and others may be looking at how they manage should a lockdown be reinstated. Some may never return to a physical workspace again. As we work through the COVID-19 alert levels, and restrictions are relaxed, I remain sceptical that people will rush back as one to shared workplaces, not least because of potential prosecutions.
And that is the crux of the matter for the construction industry too. With the announcement that those that cannot work from home should return, and more sites re-opening, those operating them will be managing them against an ever-shifting backdrop of guidelines. None of us fully know the restrictions that will be in place next week, let alone in six months and in a year. Not only do we have to consider how we work safely onsite now but we must also consider how we plan and design for the future.
What we do know is the way we work has changed forever
How we manage the process going forward will be driven through collaboration with our colleagues – be they contractors or clients. There is no doubt that the pandemic has sparked efficiencies and best practice in health and safety through the adoption of digital innovations and fostering collaboration. There will always be a need for health and safety inspections to take place onsite but we are certainly learning some powerful lessons. At RLB we immediately changed the way we worked with live projects with onsite assessments unavailable in the majority of cases and a different criteria needed. We responded by issuing COVID-19 guidance which acted as an aide memoire for contractors and helped them shape their policies.
Those at the other end of the process – in planning and designing roles such as Principal Designers will have an even more critical part to play as we adopt a new design philosophy. We won’t know the full impact of COVID-19 for projects due onsite in 12 – 18 months’ time so the role must ensure it drives that conversation and asks what we do and how we do it better, providing the optimum guidance for project teams. It’s not just what we end up with but how we get there safely – for everyone.
As we wait for the dust to settle I am mindful of the actions that still need to be taken. Ensuring projects get back on track as quickly as possible is imperative to supporting the economy. Yet, we have to avoid a situation where projects are stalled as restrictions are lifted because the right documentation, such as preconstruction information, is not in place or sites are unsafe.
Although many things will be in flux during the months ahead one thing is for certain, that health and safety will need to remain at the forefront of building for our future.