Construction sites and other workplaces need to comply with regulations and manage health and safety risks, while attempting to increase production, as we move into less restrictive lockdown levels.
The announcement of South Africa’s move to lockdown Level 2 with effect from 18 August 2020 is being celebrated by almost all economic sectors. Despite this, the Level 2 regulations emphasise that this is not the time for complacency. We must remain vigilant. In addition to the Level 2 regulations, industry members should look to the Consolidated Direction on Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Certain Workplaces issued by the Minister of Employment and Labour on 4 June 2020.
The pandemic will continue to affect how we conduct business. The construction industry has enjoyed a degree of relaxation in its ability to carry out operations since Level 3 regulations were promulgated, with some restrictions continuing under Level 2. These include rotations and shift systems and implementation of health protocols in accordance with directions issued by government. In large-scale projects of over 500 individuals there are additional requirements to provide safe commute for employees, where possible, and daily health screening and reporting obligations.
The implementation of risk-mitigation strategies has proved to be easier said than done. For example, the social distancing directions, or the alternative of using physical barriers between workers, is not practical in the construction environment, and the use of some breathalyser testing apparatus, a standard screening mechanism in the sector, may not be possible.
The challenge is to comply with the regulations and directions and at the same time manage risks in relation to:
The industry is inherently social because it requires a strong physical presence to get the job done. As a result, the industry is vulnerable to a multitude of risks. The mitigation of these risks should include:
- safe access not only to and from the site but also in and around the site particularly in relation to shared spaces such as ablution facilities and canteen areas;
- provision of adequate PPE and ensuring sufficient replacements are readily available;
- enhanced hygiene required on site for all users;
- dovetailing protocols of various role-players from employers to suppliers to avoid miscommunication, conflict and unnecessary interaction; and
- providing ongoing education and platforms for communication to raise and maintain awareness and vigilance.
While the economy is opening up, the process both locally and internationally remains volatile. The possibility of a resurgence of infections remains high. This may result in unavailability of suppliers and disruptions in procurement. The usual approach to supply chain management of ‘order when required’ may have to be reconsidered.
The implementation of health and safety protocols and mitigation strategies will cost contractors and operators, and ultimately employers, a substantial amount of money. This is, however, necessary to avoid the most significant commercial risk to construction works and operation of other workplaces, namely, total shut-down of a project or facility. The cost will have to be factored into the cost of construction and operation contracts which may affect the construction industry as a whole, and the future economic growth that is expected to come from investment in construction.
In an effort to reactivate the sector sustainably, several industry bodies including the Master Builders Association, South African Institute of Civil Engineers, and the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association in collaboration with others in the sector have developed safety protocols that offer practical solutions for the new normal in the industry and these protocols should be used as guidance on how to appropriately implement the lockdown regulations in workplaces.