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Coronavirus – Assessing Risks to Scaffolders

April 2nd, 2020

Over the past few weeks, we’ve fielded enquiries from several clients who have asked if we can help with the production of Risk Assessments and Method Statements (RAMS) for Scaffolders working during the Coronavirus crisis.

Risk Assessment

 

Ordinarily, the production of RAMS for scaffolding work of any nature is a fundamental part of what we do and as those who are involved in RAMS production themselves will know, this is essentially a process whereby consideration is given to what could go wrong during the works, followed up by the drafting of a safe system of work that is intended to stop those things from going wrong. Invariably for scaffolding activity, the most common hazards are work at height and manual handling.

The presence of the Coronavirus adds another item for consideration during current risk assessment processes, and that is the presence of a presence of a biohazard, something that is very likely to be alien to most scaffolding contractors and their teams and also to Principal Contractors. It is believed that many of those carrying the virus are asymptomatic, i.e. they show no signs of having COVID19, and this presents the potential for carriers to transmit the virus without ever knowing.

Guidance

Both Government and Public Health England have shared generic measures that they recommend should be implemented by employers to protect against transmission and contraction of the Coronavirus. These include the now commonly adopted concept of working from home, social distancing and hand washing regimes – but neither organisation goes as far as to reference the existence of a biohazard or the control measures that might be implemented.

Whilst the generic measures that have been recommended are likely to be achievable in many cases, it is certainly not the case that they will be achievable in all workplaces. For example, anyone that is required to visit a site, operate machinery, or who works in a critical area of medicine, healthcare or supply (now known as ‘key’ workers) will be unable to work from home and must adopt the controls that are available, as a means of controlling the transmission of COVID19.

In addition to the guidance provided by Government, various trade bodies have also provided generic information on what is and is not acceptable and what can and cannot be done. Build UK, the leading representative organisation for the UK construction industry, has a section of their website dedicated to the virus and this includes useful links to various pieces of Coronavirus guidance, Including the Construction Leadership Council’s Site Operating Procedures (SOP) which is viewed as the main piece of current guidance for construction activity and which is primarily based on distancing and cleanliness.

The Government has made clear its wish for construction activity to continue for as long as possible throughout the crisis, subject to compliance with the Site Operating Procedures. Speaking in the Sunday Telegraph on 29 March 2020, the Construction Minister, Nadhim Zawawi said recently: “There will always be some work that cannot be done from home, whether it is construction or packing boxes in an Amazon warehouse – but we still need houses built and for deliveries to be made”.

Scaffolding Challenges

Many in the scaffolding industry have openly criticised the published guidance as being unworkable in a scaffolding application, primarily because of the difficulty to maintain a 2m space between workers and the ongoing need for joint handling of materials.

Some SIMIAN customers have also pointed out the difficulty that would be encountered in carrying out a ‘local assisted rescue’ of a Scaffolder who had fallen from height and who was suspended by their fall protection equipment, and this presents similar difficulties to those we have mentioned previously. If PPE to protect against the virus has not been provided, remote rescue using specialist equipment, may prove to be the only viable option.

PPE Requirements

Any risk assessment carried out for construction activity (including scaffolding) would need to consider the Construction Leadership Council’s guidance as a starting point and this must be expanded to include specific consideration for how this will be applied to each activity.

The challenge for the scaffolding industry is how compliance with the SOP can be maintained, particularly in terms of ensuring that the minimum 2m of separation distance is not breached. Some routine scaffolding activities, including passing short materials and fittings from hand-to-hand, will now not be possible, and where interpersonal contact for essential scaffolding work is unavoidable, this raises the question as to what control measures must be implemented to allow works to continue.

In situations where the required separation distance cannot be achieved, some will consider that the only conceivable solution to this would be to ensure that Scaffolders are wearing PPE to protect against contracting the virus, i.e:

  1. Wearing a P3 mask for which they had been face-fit-tested;
  2. Wearing a face shield;
  3. Wearing impervious hand protection;
  4. Wearing disposable coveralls.

Training Requirements

As this will effectively constitute a new system of work for many Scaffolders, consideration will also need to be given as to how the equipment is donned, used, stored, maintained and disposed of, and the implications this has for any other items of PPE that might be required in the circumstances. This extends to providing information, instruction and training on all of the above.

Those that have worked in the asbestos, nuclear, chemical or pharmaceutical industries, for example, will be well aware of how onerous the use of such essential protective equipment can be, and they will also appreciate the extremely high levels of discipline that must be practiced by workers.

It seems inconceivable that we would send medical and healthcare professionals into a potential virus contamination/transmission situation without the correct PPE, (even though this is clearly still happening) so this raises the question as to why those in other sectors might be expected to do so, albeit in environments that are arguably less ‘risky’.

PPE Availability

The lack of availability of specific PPE to protect against Coronavirus transmission is well documented, particularly for the medical and healthcare professions, which have regularly complained of significant supply issues. As outlined above, it is likely that similar levels of PPE would provide protection for Scaffolders carrying out essential work. However, it is our view that the highest priority for the provision of such equipment should be given to those on the ‘front line’ and only when the needs of the NHS and care workers etc have been met, should those in other sectors consider procuring it.

Scaffolder Rescue

Some SIMIAN customers have also pointed out the difficulty that would be encountered in carrying out a ‘local assisted rescue’ of a Scaffolder who had fallen from height and who was suspended by their fall protection equipment, and this presents similar difficulties to those we have mentioned previously. If PPE to protect against the virus has not been provided, remote rescue using specialist equipment, may prove to be the only viable option.

The National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC) have issued several statements, offering specific guidance to the scaffolding industry and they can be found here. NASC has also pushed Government for further advice as to what constitutes ‘essential construction work’. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has since published an open letter to the construction industry, but it failed to make any such distinction.

Different Views

In the time since the pandemic was declared, it has become clear that there are many varying opinions as to whether the construction industry and more specifically, the scaffolding sector, should be working and this can be largely attributed to a belief by many, that it is not possible to maintain the social distancing recommendations made by Government. Some have taken the view that they do not wish to expose their employees to the risk of transmitting/contracting the virus and others are willing to let their employees work, on the basis that they will adhere to Government recommendations.

As a business SIMIAN took the choice to suspend all work activity, with the exception of consultancy work on all but critical infrastructure projects, using only team members who have explicitly stated that they are happy to do so.  The reasons for this were two-fold; firstly, the health, safety and wellbeing of our team is paramount, and secondly; we felt that it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify continuing to work in an environment in which the team’s wellbeing could not be guaranteed. We have yet to receive any such requests for work of this nature and we will evaluate them as and when they arise.

Of course, the view of SIMIAN is ‘personal’ to the business and it is not our place or our intention to stand in judgement of those that have differing views. Our management team continues to monitor the situation at daily video conferences and only when we are comfortable that we can ensure the health and well-being of our team, will we consider undertaking site activities.

Virtual Scaffold Inspection

In the meantime, some of our expert staff are working from home and are free to take calls (0345 602 2418) and respond to emails (hello@simian-risk.com) to offer free advice on any scaffolding technical matters. We are happy to consider images, scaffold designs, previous inspection reports and even video links, to assist and provide advice to the nominated scaffold inspectors at sites, using our virtual scaffold inspection service.


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