Although a host of non-essential hospitality, leisure and retail premises were temporarily shuttered during the COVID-19 outbreak, construction sites across England, Wales and Northern Ireland were permitted to continue operations.
Yet initial sector-specific commentary from the government was bare-boned and ambiguous. Unsurprisingly, some contractors struggled with how to interpret and implement official guidance to protect workers practically.
In challenging circumstances, the industry often shows itself at its best, its members pooling knowledge and refining ideas. The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) launched its Site Operating Procedures (SOP) in March, providing a set of measures to adhere to rules on distancing and hygiene from Public Health England (PHE) to keep sites in England running.
CLC’s SOP and government’s guidance
As a framework for contractors and developers, the CLC’s SOP is generally well-considered and helpful, though not without controversy (notably on some of its early social distancing advice). Despite this, the government’s subsequent introduction of its own non-statutory guidance for safe working in construction threatens its relevance. That guidance, Working safely during COVID-19 in construction and other outdoor work, was last revised on 3 July (as Version 4.0), following the government’s first steps to restart the economy.
Adopting both sets of processes is an option, of course, but may lead to confusion on how to proceed where provisions differ. Regarding on-site roles for workers clinically vulnerable to COVID-19, the government’s guidance is more informative. Conversely, the SOP provides surer footing on what employers should consider when it is impossible to keep to social distancing requirements. Direct clashes between the two are absent; the few that existed had been quietly eliminated by the CLC in version 4. The current SOP (version 5) claims to be based on the government’s guidance.
The government’s guidance has the more official chops. PHE and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) were among those consulted in its production. The former provides scientific leadership on the pandemic, while the HSE is an enforcing authority for government and PHE rules on the workplace and any regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work 1974. So perhaps it can be assumed that compliance will be regarded by health and safety officers as sufficient to discharge the relevant legal obligations. Regardless, that does not undermine the effectiveness of the SOP or more bespoke approaches. Alternatives are acceptable so long as they satisfy the requirements.
For the most part, however, the SOP and the government guidance overlap. And that may be the CLC’s biggest issue. Having now committed to minor refinements and to shadowing its rival, the SOP increasingly lacks a point of difference to justify why it should be applied on any new starts instead of the government guidance.
Even the government can be befuddled. On its Remediation and COVID-19: Building Safety update webpage, it suggests observing the SOP for continuing construction work during the pandemic. For workplace health and safety on sites, it points to the guidance instead.
If the SOP is to have a long-term future during this pandemic, a renewed sense of purpose is needed. Perhaps a way forward would be for it to function as an overlay on top of the government guidance, concentrating on areas where that guidance could benefit from greater practical instruction or explanation. There are, without doubt, a few of these and it would avoid users having to undertake this task themselves. Otherwise, there runs the risk that users could be confused by the existence of two standards that are essentially duplicative.