Managing a safe return to site in construction

As the construction sector looks to bring workers back on site, creating safe and distanced office spaces will be a key concern, writes Andrew Richardson for Mobile Mini.

Construction workers have faced a difficult year. The impact on construction output has been hit by lockdowns and social distancing restrictions. In this time, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded the largest fall in output for the sector since records began in January 2010.

Fortunately, construction work has continued since the first lockdown in England and Scotland. But while some workers, such as labourers and site managers, have returned to the workplace, other roles remain in a remote position. Engineers, surveyors, and architects can complete some of their roles at home.

But as the end of the pandemic appears to be in sight, some industry leaders worry that remote working in construction industries may hinder an efficient recovery for the sector. But if all construction employees return to site eventually, how can this be achieved safely?

Remote working in construction

According to one employee experience index, 49% of people working in UK construction and engineering had no experience of working from home before the pandemic. Furthermore, 91% of those who have remote working experience would usually work from home for only one day or less per week, and only 32% of home-workers have a dedicated working space at home.

While the construction industry evaded the compulsory closing of non-essential businesses during the second and third national lockdown in England, social distancing regulations and expectations of who can work on-site remain. The guidance prioritises those who cannot work from home. In construction and engineering, this may be limited to labourers and infrequent visits from engineers when on-site reviews must be completed.

However, while working from home has been possible during the pandemic, there is little motivation to maintain this culture. Construction must remain focussed on safety and quality, which can only be achieved through in-person assessment.

Open BIM enables more informed collaboration, resulting in better quality builds. Credit (all images): Reid Brewin Architectes

Having a piece of software that uses a non-proprietary-based data exchange means the files can be easily shared.

Making space a priority

Despite the vaccine rollout, experts agree that social distancing will continue for the majority of 2021. As construction workers continue to return to sites, these regulations must be adhered to, which means additional working space will be required in many cases.

While this space can be employed as a temporary measure, site managers may look for a storage containerto create a portable and easy shelter for workers. As an office, even a 20ft container can be a versatile space, allowing engineers to review plans and make appropriate amendments in the vicinity of the construction work.

Office spaces are valuable for collaboration. Given the variety of roles involved in a construction project, office space is central in fostering innovative decisions which can help improve the quality of work, regulate safety on site, and help reduce costs.

Working from home can hinder this collaborative effort. While objectives such as CAD and steel detailing can be done remotely, doing this in isolation can make it more difficult for co-workers and project partners to contribute to the planning stage.

Recovering output and efficiency

According to the ONS, while construction output has achieved a seventh consecutive month of growth, some aspects of the sector are still lagging. For example, new work was still 3.1% below output in February 2020, representing £282m of output in the sector. New public housing construction, which requires efficient processes, is still 22.1% below its pre-pandemic level. There is a clear need for normal work processes to resume.

Continuing into 2021, a majority of construction businesses do not intend to maintain remote working capabilities. According to the ONS, only 5.5% of construction businesses want a permanent increase of home working, as opposed to 83.5% who do not want remote working to increase after the pandemic. Eleven percent of businesses were not sure about their future working practices yet.

While all industries have taken a hit during the past year, confidence in construction is at risk of not returning to its full potential unless appropriate action is taken. Resuming normal working conditions is essential, but it must be done in adherence with health and distancing guidelines. As the construction industry looks to accommodate as many workers as possible back into construction sites, creating safe and efficient office spaces will become a key concern.