The Site Operating Procedures, which are based on government medical advice, set out how construction work can go ahead at a reduced risk of Covid-19 transmission.
The first version, published in March, said (among other things) that workers should stay two metres apart at all times wherever practical and as much as possible.
After complaints of vagueness, a second version was produced on 4th April, which stated that work should not go ahead if social distancing could not be adequately observed and enforced. This version was ripped up within hours of publication after feedback that it was too constrictive.
A more relaxed third version was produced on 15th April. Version 3 includes a Hierarchy of Controls risk management table, saying that if they really had to, workers could be less than two metres apart but for no more than 15 minutes and they should try not to face each other, if at all possible.
But the Unite union, which is the largest union for construction workers since it took over Ucatt in 2017, says that this ‘watered-down’ guidance is unsafe and places construction workers at unnecessary risk.
It is not just the reduced emphasis on social distancing on site that Unite is concerned about; it also feels that the issue of getting between home and site safely is insufficiently addressed.
Unite has written to Alok Sharma, the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, to complain about the Site Operating Procedures. “We would go as far as to say it undermines the safety of workers on construction sites and may even become a contributory factor to the spread of Covid-19 in our communities,” the letter says.
Concerns about the new risks to which construction workers are being exposed, Unite has set up a hotline for workers to report unsafe working practices (Tel 0207 622 2442 or email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Unite national officer for construction Jerry Swain said: “Construction workers’ health is being threatened by watered down advice. Alok Sharma must step in immediately and have these defective procedures withdrawn. We sincerely hope that this is not a case of the economy being put before the health of construction workers and their families.”
He continued: “Unite’s position remains unchanged; no site should be working unless it can do so safely and that means two metre social distancing must be maintained at all times.
“Contractors and clients also have a moral duty of care for workers from when they leave their home to when they return. Construction workers should not be forced to use overcrowded public transport, potentially endangering their health and that of our key workers.
“If our members believe their health is being directly compromised, they should stop work and seek the assistance of Unite. Workers on sites need to be our eyes and ears. If they are concerned about a lack of social distancing, a lack of cleaning or any other issue of compromised safety, please contact Unite via the hotline. Your identity will never be revealed to your employer.”