Amidst pandemic and panic, Australia’s construction industry inadvertently became a beacon of hope during 2020.
As other industries closed their doors for the better part of the year, construction sites remained open and fully functional thanks to a swift response and everyone’s willingness to cooperate. But it wasn’t just COVID-19 we had to contend with: this year, we also faced the devastating bushfires that had swept the country.
So, in a year of dual tragedies, dangerous working conditions, and more ‘firsts’ than we can list—how did we fare? And what did we learn?
Our Horrifying Bushfire Season
The hot, dry season of 2019/2020 has since been dubbed the ‘Black Summer, where the months-long siege choked out NSW, VIC and the ACT’ We lost an estimated 18.6 million hectares of land and 5,900 buildings. Massive amounts of our native flora and fauna perished, and 34 people lost their lives.
“There wasn’t a lot of guidance around the shutdown point, that is, when do you shut down? How? What are the best control measures? How do we protect our workers?”– Melanie Dawson, Manager of Safety and Environment at Master Builders Queensland
Remarkably, he fires themselves were not the primary threat to workers: The air quality was. While sites in fire danger zones were evacuated quickly, work continued in the major cities where fire was a low risk, but the air being formally declared as ‘hazardous.’ (NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted into the atmosphere during the fires.)
Manager of Safety and Environment at Master Builders Queensland Melanie Dawson explained that while our nation’s communities were given some level of both warning and guidance on managing unsafe conditions, the businesses and their workers were not equally well informed about how to manage air quality issues.
“It was great to see lots of community information and communication around safety for our vulnerable population and those with respiratory conditions, but we struggled for a clear understanding of the impact on our outdoor workplaces,” says Dawson. “In the end, some sites were shut down by businesses and the unions due to poor air quality. There wasn’t a lot of guidance around the shutdown point, that is, when do you shut down? How? What are the best control measures? How do we protect our workers?”.
Shut Down, Or Stay Open?
In a country with safety regulations particular to each state and territory, creating a blanket rule for workplace safety was difficult. The bushfire season only sought to highlight the confusion as sites demanded answers—they wanted to stay open, safely. But who would make the rules?
“The Government can provide guidelines around safety, but there are no formal ‘rules’ around what’s safe and what isn’t,” in regards to this air quality issue in a normal work environment. says Dawson.
The construction industry needs to focus on this issue ahead of next summer’s bushfire season. Larger businesses need the knowledge of how to keep their workforce safe and employed and know what standards they are meant to be working to, according to Dawson.
The Crossover: March 2020
As the bushfires were finally wrangled under control by late March, a new disaster was unfolding: the COVID-19 pandemic. The highly contagious virus forced Australia into a nation-wide lockdown.
The construction industry, just starting to regain momentum after the bushfires, now faced a whole new set of challenges as the world slowly began comprehending how to stop the spread of the virus.
“Initially, workplaces didn’t see it as being a safety issue,” remembers Dawson. “It was a pandemic, so we all considered it more of a community issue. Then, all of the sudden, we were told that the virus was spreading everywhere—home, work, public transport, restaurants, everywhere. The only way to manage this was with a huge shift in the way health and safety was managed in the workplace.”
An Industry-Wide Response That Saved Jobs—And Lives
The construction industry is anecdotally considered the only non-essential service that managed to avoid lockdown during the pandemic. Australia’s hospitality, retail, health and fitness, arts, and almost all other communities suffered significant losses economically and personally. So what made our construction workers so deft at dodging the virus?
“Largely, the industry’s reaction was driven by a very understandable fear of being shut down,” says Dawson. “They needed to stay open and working. So we were able to say, ‘Okay, if you can show that we can do this safely, then we’ll support you in trying to keep you open.’”
New safety measures were layered upon existing requirements, and overnight we made big changes. The closed-ecosystem of a job site, plus the ability to easily track people, allowed for much safer conditions. Our construction sites became highly controlled environments and became a nationwide example of how tough safety standards can pay off in the spread of COVID-19.
What We Learned and What We Gained
As with any great challenge, 2020 was an exceptional learning experience for our country’s construction industry. Like it or not, we have a reputation for dragging our feet when it comes to change. But, this year, we saw an extraordinary hustle as everyone worked together at record speed to keep our people and our industry safe.
“For me, the biggest takeaway for the industry this year was perhaps realising that cultural change doesn’t have to be a total change of everything,” says Dawson.
“We saw that it was actually possible to reevaluate just one thing at a time, which in this instance was how we approached health issues. You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater every time a change needs to happen, we can build on what we already have in place. I believe that change will be seen differently now that our people have seen it work first hand.”
More broadly, the industry has a newfound appreciation for isolation during illness. ‘She’ll be right, mate’ is the age-old trope that’s plagued our industry for centuries and resulted in more than one tragedy. Now, we know the dangers of bringing illness, fatigue, or complacency into the workplace—it can be deadly.
“The biggest takeaway for the industry this year was perhaps realising that cultural change doesn’t have to be a total change of everything.”– Melanie Dawson
Technology had a breakthrough moment this year also, with remote working environments becoming a necessity. Ultimately, tracking team movements, site updates, and client communications kept the industry alive when it otherwise would have failed. A steep learning curve, sure—but one that taught us how reliable our systems and processes truly are.
Here at Jobsite ANZ, we are so proud of our construction industry for rising to the occasion during such a tough year. The stories of comradery, innovation, and resilience buoyed our spirits at many moments.
To all our readers and those who work within the industry, thank you. Your commitment to getting through 2020 safely did not go unnoticed. Together we look ahead to a new year, into which we will take all the learnings of 2020—a year we won’t readily forget.