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Slow return to ‘normal’ begins

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A phased return towards the full level of working on construction sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was underway as we went to press, and an industry’s workforce was about to learn for the first time how to cope with safe working requirements forced on them by a pandemic. Scottish sites and those in Ireland of course remained closed by government order unless they were engaged on ‘essential’ projects.

Social distancing is the key strategy, although there will be others such as providing face masks and having hand sanitisers available at key locations. Social distancing on scaffolding will be a challenge as the boards are nowhere near wide enough to allow a two metres distance to be maintained. To help ensure that new safe working guidelines are adhered to a new category of site supervision is being introduced, the COVID-19 Supervisor.

The challenges for the steel construction sector have had to be met in factories and design and administration offices as well as on sites. Office based staff have mostly been working from home and, like the rest of the world it seems, have been using services like Teams for meetings.

It is easier to introduce new working methods like safe distancing in the factory-controlled conditions of workshops, which is where most steel construction takes place, than on congested construction sites. Very few steelwork contractors have closed their workshops although most have furloughed some employees, and there has since been a steady return to work as the lockdown continues.

In the workshops, one-way systems have been introduced to make maintaining safe distances easier. Toolbox talks have been adopted to help make sure the new hygiene and other measures like cleaning handles and controls that will be shared by other users are understood by everyone.

The government is reportedly considering staggered start and finish work times as part of its back to work plans, and the steel construction sector can already report considerable success with the introduction of these sorts of measures over the past few weeks. Staggered break times have also been introduced and extra welfare facilities put in place to avoid overcrowding canteens.

On site, steel construction’s offsite fabrication advantages obviously come to the fore. Main contractors have introduced their own measures, which BCSA members fully support. Some have adopted the BCSA Safe Site Handover Certificate processes, which were revised by BCSA for COVID-19, as one way to help promote safe working. Much of a steelwork contractor’s on-site work is carried out from mobile elevated working platforms, so social distancing is seldom an issue. Most workers in steel construction work locally in workshops, but erectors have to travel and finding accommodation for them has been a challenge due to hotels and B&B’s being closed.

Few projects seem to have been cancelled, but many have been delayed. Encouragingly, there has been a steady flow of enquiries and tenders are being prepared. Some BCSA members have even won new work in the past few weeks. All obviously yearn for a return to ‘normal’, or to see what the ‘new normal’ will look like.

As NSC went to press construction looked like being among the first industries, along with manufacturing, to be told to return to work, safely. From the experience of BCSA members so far, it looks like it can be done.

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