While most states and territories in Australia have already loosened restrictions on movement and business activity due to low or zero levels of COVID-19 community transmission, Victoria has not been so lucky.
Construction firms in Melbourne Shire have had to rapidly reconfigure work programs and on-site worker levels due to Stage 4 COVID-19 restrictions that came into effect on August 5 and are due to continue until at least mid-September. The rest of Victoria is also back to tighter rules, with level 3 restrictions.
Doing Construction Projects With Fewer People
While the construction industry can keep operating, activity on site is being reduced, according to the Victorian Building Authority.
Under Level 4, residential builders of detached dwellings and low-rise projects of three storeys or less can have no more than five workers on site, including supervisors. Shifts cannot be blended, and workers can only work on one site during the Stage 4 restriction period.
Large-scale construction projects, excluding government and civil projects, must reduce their workforce onsite to 25 per cent of its baseline workforce or a maximum of five workers, whichever is the greater number, according to Master Builders Victoria. Further specific details for all construction projects can be found here. All sites must also have a High-Risk COVID Safe Plan in place.
Large-scale construction projects, excluding government and civil projects, must reduce their workforce onsite to 25 per cent of its baseline workforce or a maximum of five workers.
The Housing Industry Association has confirmed that its guidance materials developed for Stage 3 restrictions still apply. These include the HIA Making Space Guidelines, COVID Site Induction and Site Manager for COVID.
All construction sites can obtain free workplace testing for COVID-19 through the Incolink testing bus. This testing has been sponsored by Incolink, the Victorian Government, CBUS, CoINVEST, and the ETU. Further information and details about how to book worksite tests can be found here.
Scaling Back Building Activity
Master Builders of Australia Victoria CEO Rebecca Casson said in a statement MBAV is “devastated by” the decision to scale back building and construction activity.
“However, we acknowledge the State Government’s difficult decision regarding our industry during these challenging times,” Casson said. “We know that infection rates in the building and construction industry have been well below community average, and we know that all of the proactive measures our industry has taken including onsite testing, physical distancing, daily sanitization procedures, temperature screening and face masks have demonstrated the agility of our industry to adapt to public health challenges.”
Casson said MBAV’s concern is ensuring that employers and employees can navigate through this period with businesses and jobs intact.
“There are more challenges ahead and it is incumbent on everyone in the building and construction industry to be vigilant while we work daily with DHHS and the Government to adapt best practices to keep our industry safe,” Casson said.
Managing Changes Through Covid-19
Dominique Halloran, principal of construction project management consultants Hinds Blunden, based in Melbourne, said builders will need to consider how to continue their works so that it affects the completion date as little as possible.
“This will reduce their liability for liquidated damages and for ongoing overhead costs,” Halloran said. “Many builders will be seeking an extension of time to project completion. In order to be eligible for an extension of time, it will usually be necessary to demonstrate that the works on the critical path have been affected by the reduction in workforce.
“Additionally, contracts will often require the builder to mitigate any delays—so focussing on the critical work to demonstrate mitigation efforts will be important.”
Halloran said builders would need to assess the critical works that can be completed during Stage 4, and coordinate resources accordingly.
To be in the best position to make an extension of time claim, Hinds Blunden recommends a builder records the current status of works before or as close as possible to Stage 4 being put in place.
According to Halloran, this can be as simple as a hand marked-up copy of the schedule showing the status of works completed to date and the forecast to complete without restrictions. The builder should then also develop a new forecast to complete (with restrictions) and use it as a basis to seek an Extension of Time. It is also recommended to take a photo record of the works.
Looking to the Workers
In terms of reducing the number of workers onsite, there may be alternatives to temporarily standing excess workers down. This, of course, depends on the builder and the site.
Halloran suggests looking at other tasks workers could be doing, such as procurement activities, Quality Assurance documentation, or undertaking training.
“Builders may also learn that they can accomplish the same (or more) with less.”
“Are there options to use labour in an off-site capacity, such as pre-fabrication, while maintaining compliance with Stage 4 requirements?,” asked Halloran.
Builders should check their contracts to determine under what circumstances they can make an Extension of Time claim and what timeframes need to be met for lodgement, Halloran said.
“Seek out sound commercial and legal advice,” recommended Halloran.
“While builders may be entitled to an EOT and hence avoid Liquidated Damages, depending on the contract provisions, it may not be possible to recover all of the costs associated with Stage 4 restrictions. Therefore, the emphasis should be on reducing the cost impact—regardless of whether the builder or owner is exposed.”
In navigating Level 4, as well as any other major disruption, Halloran said, the usual project management processes are recommended. Maintain project records and schedules, good commercial management and understanding of the project risks.
“Builders may also learn that they can accomplish the same (or more) with less,” Halloran said. “Are there lessons to be learned for the future in relation to workforce efficiency?”