Should UK construction be returning to work?

Ryan Johnson, managing director at Emplas, asks if you are confused about whether or not you should return to work.

We’re now in the fourth week of shutdown. It’s been a difficult time for us, our customers and our suppliers, personally and professionally.

Closing our doors on March 24 was something I could never have imagined doing. We never want to let our customers down, but neither do we want to put them or our people at risk. And this has been the challenge that every systems company, fabricator and installer is currently having to contend with.

Deliver for our customers and get paid (let’s not make any bones about it, cashflow is a big issue for everyone right now), but in doing so risks something more important: the welfare of our people or our customers.

The response of government to Covid-19 has, for the large part, been on the money. We would all be feeling significantly less optimistic about the future had it not stepped up with funding to support job retention.

It hasn’t, however, been quite so clear on rules on work. On April 8 it issued new instructions ordering the shut down of construction sites only to withdraw them the following day.

The Construction Leadership Council, a joint industry and government body, issued a notice that hardened the previous advice to companies.

The new guidelines insisted that “where it is not possible or safe for workers to distance themselves from each other by 2m, work should not be carried out”. But the council withdrew the notice hours later after uproar from the industry, which complained the rules were impossible to follow.

We need to be safe. There is no question about it. Where it is safe to do so, and where no alternative exists, government advice is that we can, and should, return to work.

“With the exception of some non-essential shops and public venues, we are not asking any other businesses to close – indeed it is important for business to carry on,” it said.

So why aren’t we? The first point is that we’re still at the beginning of what is a sizeable shift in the commercial landscape. We needed time as an industry to make an assessment.

From a practical perspective, we have also been focused on supporting our customers and our staff. And, in the interests of full transparency, we didn’t have the answers. We couldn’t say anything meaningful because, in common with everyone else, we were in a period of adjustment and focused on the challenges that it has brought.

Now, however, I believe we’re in a slightly different space.

At the time of writing it seems likely that controls on movement will be extended. This was always on the cards, so we shouldn’t be panicked by it.

The question now is, and given government advice, should we remain closed for it in its entirety, or are there ways to manage some form of return to work without increasing risk?

This is a twofold question, maybe even threefold. First, construction.

The challenges of working in and around someone’s home are infinitely greater than on a construction site. That is why many building sites remain open and large construction companies are currently reopening sites, putting in additional controls to reduce risk.

This creates a demand for windows and doors. We have a choice of going back to work and fulfilling those orders, or not.

The home improvement market is more complex. Many homeowners may not want strangers in their homes for a wide variety of reasons, from pre-existing health conditions to simple concern about the risks. Others, however, will – as long as we can evidence that controls are in place to ensure their safety, and that of employees.

This means putting in process as much as PPE: confirming in advance that household and installation teams are fit and well in the period before arrival on site; agreeing a working schedule in advance to minimise contact between homeowner and fitters; and the proper cleaning of product before departure.

Marketing, lead generation, sales calls – these are things which can, and arguably should, be done remotely. There is no reason to go to site until the final survey. We’re working with our customers to develop these processes and tools to safeguard their teams and the homeowner.

We will restart fabrication when we have the processes and systems in place so that it is safe for our people and our customers, and as long as government guidance says that we can.

We are talking to our customers about what they need from us, and building and understanding how we need to adapt our processes to minimise risk and maximise the safety of all. This is being reviewed on an hourly basis.

It is only when we are confident that these systems are in place, and that it is safe to do so, that we will return to work.