The past two months in Australia have seen an unprecedented health scare shut down most of our country’s sectors. The building and construction industry, with many sites still open, sometimes feels like the ‘last man standing’ at a time of widespread economic standstill. It’s fair to say that for many, we are an example for how other sectors can begin to operate again safely.
So for an industry that is almost entirely operating in the realm of bricks and mortar, how has the construction world coped with the crisis, and how is it working to keep all employees safe?
Procore gathered three key industry experts to discuss this challenge. Our host, Procore Field Marketing Manager Jeremie Henry, was joined by Sarah Cuscadden (Group Manager Health Safety and Environmental at Probuild Constructions), Sumit Oberoi (Executive Director at AMCA), and Michael Paynter (Industry Officer for The Building and Construction Industry, Peregrine Industrial) for The Industry Perspective webinar: Workforce Safety Amid COVID-19.
Here’s what they had to say:
An Unusual Alliance
Industry unions, industry associations, and government bodies have united for the first time to create COVID-19 Safety Guidelines for the building and construction industry. It has been a groundbreaking show of togetherness that truly speaks to the seriousness of our situation.
“The rules have been rewritten in terms of the relationships between the industry stakeholders and by stakeholders — that is, industry associations, employer associations, individual companies, unions, and government — in an unprecedented way,” noted Michael Paynter, Industry Officer for The Building and Construction Industry, Peregrine Industrial. “Everybody’s finally on the same page in relation to what’s necessary to keep the industry functioning.”
“These guidelines were developed very rapidly, which is great to see how quickly the industry can collaborate and work together, and get some controls in place.”– Sarah Cuscadden, Group Manager Health Safety and Environmental at Probuild Constructions.
In a highly unusual show of cooperation, the alliance of governing bodies are now up to their third iteration of national safety guidelines, which address everything from health initiatives, hygiene initiatives, and social spacing; as well as the workers’ entitlements when confronted with changes to their practices, possible isolation, and new testing regimes.
“These guidelines were developed very rapidly, which is great to see how quickly the industry can collaborate and work together, and get some controls in place,” also commented Sarah Cuscadden, Group Manager Health Safety and Environmental at Probuild Constructions. Could the days of conflict be coming to an end?
Maintaining Work/Life Balance
Safety is not just a physical consideration. For employees in the construction industry, mental health is equally as important. Several of the panel members called out the stresses of managing homeschooling in tandem with remote working in a home environment.
“There isn’t a lot of separation from work and home life,” says Sumit Oberoi, Executive Director at AMCA.
“That puts a lot of pressure on our employees. Business owners have demands, and as we know, it’s quite a demanding industry. However, leading with purpose and dealing with the wellbeing of the most important asset they have — their people — is crucial. Because anytime we watch the news or we pick up the paper, it’s not a great story that we’re seeing around the world.”
Sumit also pointed out that mental health and stress support is going to be a long-term issue, not something that immediately dissolves once ‘normal’ workdays resume. The impact of COVID-19 is surely set to disrupt routines for a while to come. How is your company planning ahead in regards to future mental health initiatives?
The COVID-19 App: Should it be Compulsory?
Of all the controversial safety measures put forth to the population the Australian Government’s COVID-19 app has been a hot topic. In the construction industry, some site managers want to make it compulsory — while others claim that it’s not fair on employees who might be uncomfortable sharing personal data.
“Whilst I don’t think you can make it compulsory, I think it’s highly recommended. And with the level of cooperation that we’re seeing at the moment, I think it will become quite a feature of most sites,” says Paynter.
“If we promote the benefits of it sufficiently well and get the continued cooperation I see it being a very high take-up and again, highly recommended.”– Michael Paynter, Industry Officer for The Building and Construction Industry, Peregrine Industrial
Paynter notes that on the sites he has visited, there are already direct questions being asked, particularly in regards to temperature checks and hygiene procedures. Personal information is already being offered, and willingly.
“In Australia, we’re hesitant to make things compulsory,” says Paynter. “I think if we promote the benefits of it sufficiently well and get the continued cooperation, I suppose, particularly of the unions and also the employers, I see it being a very high take-up and again, highly recommended.”
The Cost of Safety
Stringent safety processes are being introduced to job sites and offices around Australia, including facemasks, hand sanitiser, protective shields, cleaning materials, and plastic gloves. The financial fallout of these sudden and unexpected medical overheads was called out by the panel as significant costs that businesses cannot afford to overlook.
“The money involved in the significant amount of hygiene and cleaning in the workplaces is a real cost,” says Paynter.
“I was at a site yesterday that is working around the clock. They’re running 24 hours a day, three shifts. And, each shift, they have a team of cleaners going in to clean up the crib rooms, wipe down the handrails, all the things that they need to do. All of that, up to eight times a day. That costs money, in terms of both the labour and the direct costs.”
At present, there is no discussion as to whether or not the government will offer compensation for the safety spend. “The day of reckoning is still coming,” cautions Paynter.
Implementing New Safety Guidelines
On the 20th of April, the third revision of the Victorian Safety Guidelines was released. But with a slew of new and important processes needing to be implemented, what advice did our panel have to say about facilitating those changes?
“We were fortunate enough to be aware and very well informed whilst these guidelines were being developed, that we were mindful that any words on paper are only as good as their implementation,” says Cuscadden.
“We spent a lot of time developing a comms plan and strategy with our people. We looked at our health and safety team, our people leaders, project managers and site managers, and explained to them the process that had been undertaken to develop these guidelines. And then asked, “Well, what are the controls, why are they in place, and how are we actually going to embed them on our sites?”
“None of us were COVID-19 experts on this until a couple of weeks ago. We’ve only started to understand the nature of this.”– Sarah Cuscadden
Cuscadden said the key to successfully implementing the guidelines was to have management onsite when they were implemented, in order to get an understanding of what was working, what wasn’t, and what were the unknowns.
Slow and steady was also key: accepting knowledge gaps, and committing to self-education.
“None of us were COVID-19 experts on this until a couple of weeks ago,” said Cuscadden. “We’ve only started to understand the nature of this.”
The Danger Zones, And How to Manage Them
Obviously, there are particular areas on a job site that pose higher risks for disease spread than others: particularly ‘high-density areas’ where the 1.5m social distancing rules are difficult to maintain. These might include goods lifts, bathrooms, or site offices. Here’s what Cuscadden had to say on managing these areas.
“It comes back to communication, understanding the risk, implementing controls where practicable, and minimising the amount of time people are spending together in the lift,” explained Cuscadden.
“Simple things: like staggered workgroups, taking people directly to the floor that they need to go to rather than doing five or six stops along the way, applying our cleaning regime in the hoist waiting areas, marking the 1.5 meters and then just listening to what people have to say.”
Listening to the people on the ground, says Cuscadden, is the greatest solution.
“When people are raising these concerns, we actually know these are the things that we need to address to make people feel comfortable. And when I think moving forward, it’s important to note that we don’t have the answers for everything, and that sometimes when people raise things around COVID-19 we put our hand up and we say, ‘we don’t have the answer for that, but we’re going to come back to you.’”
Avoiding the Spread of COVID in the HVAC Systems
For most businesses, the building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC) have been dormant since the lockdown was announced. With many buildings now looking to reopen, what is best practice to restart the HVAC systems?
“HVAC systems really need to be thoroughly inspected and serviced to avoid potential risks,” said Sumit Oberoi.
Continually running an HVAC system during a company lockdown is not feasible, it needs to be top of the list of safety priorities once staff start to return to the building.– Sumit Oberoi, Executive Director at AMCA
“The systems in commercial buildings are usually designed for continuous operation. So, as a result, HVAC systems rely on continuous operation for optimal performance and they need to be supported by regular service and maintenance.”
Oberoi said that whilst he knows that continually running an HVAC system during a company lockdown is not feasible, it needs to be top of the list of safety priorities once staff start to return to the building.
“We are going into winter, so there’s the potential of Legionella airborne mould, as well as exposure to building equipment that might arise,” he added.
A Continuing Mission
“There is a significant amount of time around the interventions and preventative controls that we can put in place to make sure people remain healthy at our workplaces,” said Paynter.
“And when I think about the future of construction sites, and health and safety, the learnings from COVID-19 will more be around people’s health and wellbeing. How do we respond to them, and what programs or work and initiatives do we have around making sure people are fit and healthy?”
Cuscadden was also quick to ensure that her company avoided a ‘set and forget’ mindset.
“It’s an ongoing process. It’s not like on the 20th of April, we sent the guidelines out via email to our site teams and said, ‘Here you go!’”
“Day in, day out, I’m talking to all of our health and safety managers on what’s happening out on-site, how these are going. Have we got any ideas and feedback from people on the ground? Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who are on the building site and adapting to the changes,” said Cusadden.