Keeping construction workers safe on the job can be challenging at the best of times, but it's a task that most supervisors and construction managers are capable of handling.

The coronavirus pandemic had added an entirely new and incredibly concerning variable to this task, especially as most of the country moves into Stage Four lockdown protocols. How can construction supervisors and business owners ensure that their workers can complete their tasks safely?

Know the Lockdown Restrictions

First, it is important to remain abreast of any restrictions which are in place within your area. In metropolitan Melbourne, where Stage 4 restrictions are now in place, current health directions issued by the Chief Medical Officer require you to have a High Risk COVIDSafe Plan, maintain at least four square meters of enclosed workspace per worker (on enclosed sites), limit movement of workers between sites and – in the case of building construction – limit the number of workers on site to five in the case of small sites or 25 percent of the normal workforce in the case of large sites (civil construction sites do not need to follow specific worker reduction targets). Current guidance on these restrictions is available on the Business Victoria web site.

Whilst the construction sector is generally functioning normally across the rest of the country, rules could change should the number of cases rise in specific areas.

At any rate, construction employers should be aware of their work, health and safety responsibilities and should remain abreast of guidance issued health departments and safe work  authorities in their state along with that issued by industry associations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their workers, subcontractors and customers and to ensure that their site does not become a source of COVID spread.

Comply with All COVID Precautions

Step two is to comply with all recommended COVID precautions. That includes social distancing — staying two meters apart from anyone outside of your immediate household, focusing on both environmental and worker hygiene and providing health checks. If an employee shows symptoms of COVID-19 or may have encountered an infected individual as determined by contract tracing, provide them with paid leave to quarantine for 14 days or until they receive a negative COVID test.

Choose the Correct Protective Equipment

The virus spreads primarily in respiratory particles we emit when we exhale, so masks are an essential tool for protecting yourself from COVID-19, especially when in close proximity or when social distancing isn’t an option. The trick is to choose the correct masks and protective equipment. N95 respirators are among the most effective, but they may only be available to medical professionals.

It should be noted that in Victoria, face coverings are currently mandated for all residents when they leave their homes. This includes workers coming to work on construction sites. In New South Wales, face masks are currently recommended anywhere where you are unable to maintain physical distancing. This includes workers who need to take public transport in order to get to the work site or when working at a site which may be crowded, such as when performing maintenance or renovations in a shopping center.

Even homemade cloth masks are more effective than not wearing them at all. One study in Germany found that if the majority of the population wears face masks when in public when social distancing isn’t an option, they can reduce the daily infection rate by up to 40%.

Provide Rotating Schedule Options

Having everyone on-shift as you normally would isn’t going to work for construction in the age of Corona. Having large groups of people in close proximity could easily create a superspreader event that makes it even more challenging to control the virus. Instead of running things business, as usual, consider making the switch to rotating schedules. Keep things going 24 hours a day and break the day up into smaller 6 or 8-hour shifts to limit the number of people on-site at any given time.

Keep Everyone Informed

Masks and social distancing are only two of the tools we can use to create a safe work environment while we try to combat COVID-19. Information is invaluable, especially if someone on your team is infected or exposed. Keeping everyone informed protects your entire team and allows them to make the best decisions for themselves and their safety.

Be Flexible

Finally, the best thing construction managers and supervisors can do to help create a safe work environment during these uncertain times is to be flexible. Things will change — sometimes suddenly, like the decision to move to stage four lockdowns — and we’ll have to react as best we can to this new information. Flexibility isn’t just a skill these days. It’s a necessity.

Looking Forward

There’s no telling how long it will take for things to start going back to normal. We may be navigating construction in a pandemic for many months to come, and it’s up to us to ensure that we’re creating a safe working environment to protect those that are still showing up day after day in spite of the virus spreading all around us.

By Emily Folk, Author, Conversation Folks 

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