How to return to work in the construction industry during COVID-19 with Jon Harper-Slade

We caught up with Jon Harper-Slade, GM Health and Safety Innovation for CHASNZ to look at the implications of the new COVID-19 protocols on the construction industry.

Jon, what are the challenges for the construction industry as the country gets back to work?

We've tried to front-foot people returning to work by getting the industry together to develop a consensus on our response to COVID-19. We've connected with industry groups to collectively produce new work protocols which aim to connect the industry so that we can all work together and move in the same direction.

For me, one of the significant challenges, as we move to COVID-19 Alert Level 3, is the economic pressure companies are now under after nearly five weeks of inactivity. 

There are fears that there will be a headlong rush to resume work on Tuesday. Let's be cautious about returning to work in that timeframe. 

Construction should continue when organisations are ready, and to be honest, there is still a lot of work to be done in the background to remobilise elements of the industry. Organisations need to collaboratively develop and test plans for COVID-19 safety on the worksite before safe mobilisation can occur.

There is the possibility that attention will be on the risk that COVID-19 poses, which may divert attention from the traditional set of risks and hazards that we manage on the construction site. Introducing a new set of plans around hygiene and infection control is necessary to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19. Still, we must be mindful of how they relate to the site safety protocols that are already in place. For example, will wearing extra levels of PPE affect workers ability to carry out their job in a safe manner.

It is worth calling out that as an industry we need to be supportive of New Zealand's health response and develop mechanisms that make it easy to contact trace people who may have been in proximity with an infected person. This will mean keeping good records of people moving in and out of workplaces. CHASNZ have opened up the ConstructSafe platform to enable businesses to access a free technology solution to allow them to do this. The details are the CHASNZ website if people wish to know more.

On the positive side, this may be an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the industry. The adoption of remote technology for site surveys could result in fewer people being on-site, which will reduce the risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus between people.

Photo: Jon Harper-Slade

How will communication on a worksite change?

At any one time, there is enough information in the system to deal with almost any situation (sometimes too much). The challenge is that the right person may not have access to all the information they need at the time they need it. Regular communication right across the worksite will be even more important as we add another layer of safety for workers.

I think one of the positives to come from this situation is that many people have become more technologically literate in terms of how we communicate. A regular part of our workday now is to go onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams or another platform and digitally connect with others to share information. I am not sure we were all that well digitally connected before the pandemic altered our lives and forced us to work from home.

How will our move through Level 2 and Level 1 affect the construction industry?

The controls and precautions implemented as we return to work in Level 3 will not change as we move through the other levels. We are still working to the same principle i.e. stopping the spread of a dangerous virus that we don't have a vaccine for at the moment. The things that will change as we move through the levels are who goes to work, when they go to work and how they work. When we finally make it out of the COVID-19 alert system, the worksite won't be the same as before the pandemic came to our shores. 

Before COVID-19, our provision of adequate welfare facilities for workers was, in many cases, not appropriate. Many construction sites I visit don't have toilet facilities for men and women. There aren't reasonable places to wash your hands with hot soapy water. And there isn't anywhere to hygienically eat food. What I hope will come from this response, is that these types of facilities will be included in a more significant proportion of workplaces. It would be nice to think that some of these facilities will become a permanent fixture on construction sites in the future.

What are you looking for from the industry to prevent COVID-19 transmission on the worksite?

Government and industry are issuing standards, guidelines, and protocols for a return to work and what we need from our people is an understanding that there will be gaps. Due to tight response timeframes, there hasn't been a lot of time to think the protocols and guidelines through in exceptional detail. What we want to see is that people honour the spirit of what we are trying to achieve rather than attempting to find loopholes and ways around the rules. We are asking the industry to be reasonable in their short-term expectations and realise that all we are trying to do is protect the country from further transmission of the COVID-19 virus through construction sites.

Up to date information on the response from the construction industry can be found on the CHASNZ website