Unite’s call came as it expressed concern about major house-builders reopening sites despite the coronavirus crisis being not yet over. Persimmon and Vistry start re-opening sites this week and Taylor Wimpey next week.
Unite is concerned that social distancing will be a major challenge on many house building sites due to the highly casual manner in which they are organised; workers are overwhelmingly officially self-employed and various trades frequently enter and leave sites, diluting safety messages.
New site operating procedures issued by the Construction Leadership Council set out the conditions under which construction work can proceed. The first version of these guidelines suggested that workers must stay two metres apart at all times or the work should not proceed, unless essential. While debate about what constitutes essential work continues (the government considers all construction work essential to the economy), that two-metre rule has since been diluted to ‘two metres where possible’ and ‘where not possible, only for 15 minutes’.
Unite is calling on house-builders to ignore the watered down CLC guidance with regard to social distancing and instead work to ensure that the two metre rule is observed at all times. To assist with this Unite believes that staggered start times should be introduced.
Unite also believes that house-builders need to install additional welfare and rest facilities, which are regularly cleaned in order to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 on sites.
Above all, it wants HSE inspectors to get back into the field and start policing site operations to ensure adherence to social distancing.
Unite has launched a campaign and a hotline for construction workers who have returned to work and who have concerns about their safety.
Unite national officer Jerry Swain said: “House-builders are re-opening their sites based on watered down and frankly dangerous guidance. This is putting the desire to build houses before the health of workers.
“Given the nature of house building it will be highly challenging to ensure social distancing and strict cleaning regimes on these sites. Unite urges house builders to disregard the CLC guidance on social distancing but to work with us to ensure that there are no exceptions to the two-metre rule.
“If social distancing and rigorous cleaning regimes are not maintained then infection rates will increase and the length of the lockdown will increase.
“It is imperative that the Health & Safety Executive reverses its decision to not undertake proactive inspections during the pandemic. If the government believes it is safe for construction workers to be at work, then it is safe for sites to be inspected.
“If workers feel that they health is being placed at risk then they have a legal right to stop working and they should notify Unite of their concerns. When workers identify safety concerns, Unite will swiftly contact the contractor to resolve the problems. We never disclose who made the complaint but if the contractor fails to make the site safe, they will be named and shamed and the appropriate authorities notified.
“Unite is prepared to work with any house-builder to help ensure that social distancing is maintained and other welfare and cleaning provisions are met to protect the workforce.”