Unite, the UK’s construction union, has warned the government that the latest guidance on how construction sites should operate during the current COVID-19 pandemic, is unsafe and places construction workers at unnecessary risk.
Weakened operating procedures
The latest of the site operating procedures (version three) published by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), is noticeably weaker than previous versions. It was issued to coincide with a return to work at a large number of sites this week, particularly in the London area.
Unite is principally concerned about the fundamental reduction in the requirement for workers to socially distance at work. The guidance now says that where workers are required to work within two metres of each other they should: “work side by side, or facing away from each other, rather than face to face”
Face to face working
When this is not possible and workers have to work “face to face” within two metres of each other workers should: “Keep this to 15 minutes or less where possible”.
The CLC has stated that the renewed guidance is based on advice they have received from Public Health England.
Unite has written to Alok Sharma, the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, stating in clear terms that the new watered down guidance is endangering the lives of construction workers, their families and the general public. The letter says: “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.”
Due to the growing concerns that construction workers are needlessly being exposed to dangerous situations in the workplace Unite has launched a hotline (details in notes for editors) so that workers can report concerns and provide evidence of unsafe working practices. This can be on an anonymous basis. The union has also produced a video highlighting its message.
Unite is committed to protect all members who withdraw their labour due to safety concerns with all the appropriate “legal and industrial levers” that it has at its disposal.
With a number of large sites reopening particularly in London, Unite is also concerned that workers must be able to socially distance from “home to home”. The union again believes that the CLC advice is highly deficient in this area.
Workers’ health threatened
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.
“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.
“The current site operating procedures need to be withdrawn immediately and tougher safer guidance must be adopted and then vigorously enforced.
“Unite is absolutely committed to assist in drawing up new safer procedures and helping enforce safer working on sites.”