The Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 March that everybody in the UK bar key workers must stay at home apart from essential travel, and that we must social distance so that we are two metres apart at all times, has had and will continue to have serious implications for UK businesses and there was and still remains some confusion about how the government’s advice applies to the construction sector.
In a tweet following the Prime Minister’s address, the UK’s Housing Minister said with regard to the housing, construction and maintenance industries that if you are working on site you can continue to do so as long as Public Health England guidance on social distancing is followed. To assist the construction sector to navigate these exceptional circumstances, the Construction Leadership Council has published Site Operating Procedures to help sites to implement the Government’s social distancing recommendations.
In light of the Housing Minister’s comments, companies will need to conduct a documented and recorded risk assessment of each project on an individual basis to determine whether or not they can implement effective social distancing measures and remain open. The need for compliance with safety regulation will continue as normal and businesses will need to look at how they can ensure as far as practicable the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees and others in this fast changing environment.
Possible issues for consideration
The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 require all construction sites to have a first aid box on site, and an appointed and trained person to take charge of first aid arrangements. This obligation continues notwithstanding these times of social distancing. Because of social distancing, companies may wish to contemplate the possibility that a first aider might refuse to provide first aid in the normal way because of the risk of contracting coronavirus. This could result in the injured person remaining unsupported. Equally, liability could attach if a first-aider was to contract COVID-19 whilst giving first aid.
We would expect that most first aiders in the current climate may consider that checking somebody’s airway, or the provision of mouth to mouth resuscitation, is too a high risk to take, and on that basis they may refuse to do it. The Resuscitation Council UK (RCUK) is in fact advising against mouth to mouth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also additional risks associated with somebody deciding to give other forms of first aid and catching the virus themselves. NHS tests have shown, for example, that cardiac massage creates infectious aerosols that the first aider would be at risk of inhaling. The RCUK guidelines on basic resuscitation suggest that there should be no CPR without full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), so no cardiac massage without full protection which means full face-fit mask (FFP3), gowns, gloves and eye protection. PPE may therefore be the key.
In general terms, construction companies should proceed on a risk based approach and, if the risk of limited first aid exists, control measures should be put in place. For example, businesses should, amongst other things, give consideration to:
- Providing NHS style personal protective equipment (full face-fitted masks, eye protection, and medical gloves) to first aiders on site
- Reducing the volume and type of work being conducted during this time (perhaps low risk operations only will continue)
- Checking that first aiders are comfortable to continue to act as first aiders in the current climate, and
- Making sure first aid equipment such as defibrillators etc. are available on site.
Those and other measures may reduce the risk rating to an acceptable level on some projects and allow work to continue (perhaps at reduced volume). However, there may well be some projects where the risk of a first aider refusing to assist is too great, and a decision may need to be taken to suspend those projects accordingly.
This week, the media reported that the construction industry is at least in part responsible for busy tube carriages in London and adding to the City’s challenge to effectively social distance. With the increasing social and media pressure on construction sites to shut down, we will be monitoring and reporting on developments in the sector with interest.
Related item: COVID-19 – if sites close, what next?