James Parker asks if companies are in danger of putting profit before people in the current crisis?

The coronavirus crisis, apart from everything else going on as it upends our society, is exposing both the best and worst examples of that society.

While we come together to show collective support (as much as we can as we remain largely isolated in our homes), and perform feats like creating the world’s largest hospital, at the ExCel centre, in a couple of weeks, there are also some depressing examples of profit being put before human life.

Particularly depressing in that many are seen to be concentrated in our industry, namely construction.

Anecdotally, there have been reports of staff on construction sites fearful of being sacked or terrified of reporting health and safety breaches on the sites that remain open – even including outbreaks of COVID-19 being hidden so that they can remain in operation.

And workers have been ordered to come onto site despite the challenges of being able to safely distance themselves from colleagues.

Leaving lockdown to the industry’s good sense seems foolhardy at best, dangerously negligent at worst.

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects Datafile

Hurried and messy

As a commentator from Construction News, Zak Garner-Perkins recently said on a webinar staged by BESA (the Building Engineering Services Association), the response from the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) to the PM’s draconian isolation measures on the 23 March was hurried and messy.

Garner-Perkis said that the CLC “rushed out” its guidance on Site Operating Procedures within 24 hours, and it was either “impossible, or incredibly hard to implement.” And in that period, the industry “went into a tailspin.”

Although it has updated its guidance several times since the initial set, the CLC guidance (which is of course only that, and not enforceable), is wide-ranging, and onerous if taken to the letter.

But then it also says things like ‘there are situations where it is not possible or safe for workers to distance themselves by 2 metres.’

So it seems they on the one hand are setting a high bar for safety, but also acknowledging that construction sites cannot, by default, be expected to comply with the necessary measures.

Huge variety of sites

Sites of course vary hugely, some have very small canteens and toilet facilities, all without the ability to be 2 metres apart, along with other constraints.

And many workers do not have their own transport hence are forced to get on trains and buses – leading to some of the sightings of workers standing near each other on trains that have regrettably gained news headlines.

This all means that bosses – unscrupulous ones anyway – have get outs for not complying with health and safety requirements, which is truly shocking given the seriousness of the problem.

When the rest of the country is locked down, leaving it to the good sense of contractors (or their clients) to shut sites seems foolhardy at best, dangerously negligent at worst.

Unambiguous?

Garner-Perkins said that one contractor he had spoken to however had managed to shut its sites, and it is believed this is increasingly now happening as the global death toll rises daily.

The firm is keeping two of its 100-plus sites open, but only because staff can work on different levels.

Many main contractors are now closing sites, but why isn’t the Government actively telling all firms to do this?

As so often, it seems incapable of giving clear, unambiguous direction to the construction industry, even in a colossal health emergency.

A cynic would say that business will operate until it is legally told not to, especially when – as building contractors – the decision to open or shut a site may not be theirs. It may be that clients are the ones telling the staff to go onto site, not the contractors, as ever the complex web of accountability means that it’s never quite clear who’s responsibility such matters lie with.

And contractors working on tight margins and unable to borrow more if they stop jobs will be loath to stop until someone else forces them to.

Without a clear policy steer from the top (probably MHCLG), companies with wage packets to look after – the livelihoods of themselves, and their staff and their families, will make their own decisions.

There’s an irony to all this

The response from the top of the industry however is in my opinion, redolent of the UK administration’s whole response to this massive threat to our society.

Even though the crisis had been bubbling in China since the very beginning of 2020, our Government has behaved as if it has been caught on the hop.

There has been no sign of pre-emptive action such as building up extra PPE for NHS staff, preparing to test for the virus on a large scale, or increasing hospital capacity as it is now belatedly, and tragically, being forced to do. This country had weeks and weeks to prepare.

As commentators on the BESA webinar agreed, there is a terrible irony about all this.

The industry has been keenly focused on ramping up health and safety for decades, almost to a fault, and now suddenly, the health and safety culture seems to have crumbled under the weight of swift, but sudden Government moves to shut the country down.

Please let this not be the moment when it became clear that in construction, “health and safety is no. 1 until it costs too much.”

James Parker is editor of Architects Datafile