Sean Keyes is Managing Director of Civil & Structural Engineering firm, Sutcliffe. Here he speaks about how the Coronavirus Pandemic is changing the construction industry.

Like every sector, every profession and every walk of life, coronavirus or Covid-19 has and will continue to impact and change the way construction is done for many years to come – we can all be sure of that.

As a company, Sutcliffe was probably one of the first in the country to witness these changes first-hand. We had already been working with Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (as  civil engineering consultants following the demise of the previous contractor), when some elements of the project were accelerated to enable additional ICU wards to open in order to meet the increasing capacity caused by the escalating pandemic.

In my 30 plus years in the profession I am currently witnessing very different construction sites to those I am used to – social distancing, where workers never encroach within two metres of their colleagues, face masks being worn by all, and more frequent hand washing. I would be lying if I said the atmosphere wasn’t unique, and strange almost – but everyone is getting on with the job at hand, carrying out their tasks in a professional and sensible manner, being respectful of their workmates and alert to the potential risks.

And who can blame them. Recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that the death rate among low-skilled construction workers was 25.9 per 100,000 males, or 22 deaths in total, placing it among the worst-hit occupations. However, I remain incredibly optimistic for the construction industry, and believe that if we follow the safety guidelines, we will adapt and prosper in this new norm. We are used to working in dangerous conditions such as demolition sites, contaminated land and sites containing asbestos – this is no different.

At the time of writing this article, the Prime Minister has made the announcement that the lockdown restrictions will begin to be eased – with more people encouraged to return to work if it is safe to do so. And so, Sutcliffe has implemented a phased return to work. Our decision comes following guidance given by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), and regular conversations with other engineers from across the UK to gauge general opinion. The ACE informs us that they have been consulting with the Government for many weeks about the easing of restrictions and that Downing Street recognises the construction sector as instrumental in getting the UK economy motoring again.

I will say that there has been a lack of clarity in the message from the Government on how to work safely. As further announcements are given by the Government, guidance will need to adjust to accommodate the current working procedures. Both employer and employees have responsibilities to each other to work safely.

A lot of the work Sutcliffe does is office-based. In this setting, staff will be asked to avoid public transport if possible, and instead encouraged to use foot, bike, or car. Government guidelines on social distancing will be adhered to and the wearing of masks implemented. There will also be changes to desk layout to ensure two metre social distancing rules are observed, new flexible working hours for employees to reduce the impact on rush hour, and optional weekend work will be available. Of course, those who are in a high risk group will continue to work from home. A member of the team will also be assigned the new role as “Covid Police” to ensure all employees are following safety guidelines and everyone’s preferences are duly considered. Most importantly, my team must feel safe.

When it comes to construction sites, many of the practices witnessed at the Knowledge Quarter, Liverpool, some weeks ago, will be adhered to as standard practice. I am introducing temperature checks to all staff, and one-way networks adopted similar to what the supermarkets have been doing for some weeks now. Importantly, if employees cannot get to the site safely and sensibly, then they shouldn’t be there.

Now in our 35th year, Sutcliffe enjoyed one of its most successful years to date in 2019, which crucially provides us with a solid financial footing in such extraordinary challenging times. There is no denying that this is going to be an extremely testing time for the whole of the construction industry but I am genuinely relieved that we are going into stormy waters on the back of a really successful financial year.

The speed at which Covid-19 has hit all our lives is quite surreal and reminds us all how we need to better look after our planet and the food chain. Sutcliffe has an experienced top team with 100 years of management experience between us, and all have lived through many difficult periods before – we will be drawing from this wealth of experience and knowledge to guarantee our future success and to do our bit in rebuilding the UK economy.

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