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04 October 2021

Managing safety effectively in a COVID world

The global pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for effective safety management. It has presented sites and site managers with new hurdles to overcome, to ensure physical distancing on-site, maintaining effective communications in safety, design and construction and rescheduling and reorganising works to meet critical timescales.

The industry has reacted positively to these challenges, with the implementation of on-site health regimes and virtual meetings as a means of reducing physical interaction being swiftly introduced to building sites in Ireland and globally. Virtual communications has been further enhanced by advances in virtual safety audits and inspections, which has worked well, albeit with some limitations. 

Virtual audits cannot totally replace on site safety in design audits

While technological advancements have, for the most part, allowed contractors to continue construction during COVID times, not everything can be accomplished virtually. On-site inspections and audits are essential to many functions and the Project Supervisor (Design Process)(PSDP) and designers, including architects, need regular site visits to identify potential safety issues and comply with statutory obligations. Core PSDP safety issues include temporary works designs, interaction of various works elements and ongoing buildability issues. 

For the architect, as well as other designers, accessibility for future maintenance operations remain important, to ensure that the risk assessment and assumptions made in earlier design remain valid. Risk assessment in both design and construction remain ‘Live’ throughout construction and handover and therefore need to be periodically reviewed and updated as required.                    

Safety in Construction challenges remain

Challenges in construction safety remain, with works scheduling and delivery of materials in particular creating logistical difficulties. On-site safety regimes have been reorganised to achieve preparation although this is not feasible for certain works. Where possible, operatives have been organised into ‘pods’ using the same crews to assist in overcoming these challenges. 

There has also been a huge increase, and reliance, on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and many contractors are reporting rising 'PPE fatigue', resulting in reduced compliance and misuse of PPE. The use and wearing of PPE has also presented additional risks on site, whereby wearing a mask (mandatory on many sites) causes safety glasses to fog up, creating an additional risk of slips and falls and a drop in awareness of other risks around them (although new safety wear, for example, using fine mesh instead of glass for safety glasses is helping to address this issue).

Virtual Safety Auditing

The acid test for any safety management system, design and construction is effective auditing. Audits examine all parts of a work activity; from planning and forecasting, interactions with other works and trades, and compliance with stated procedures. An effective audit involved a combination of checking for compliance, as well as a deeper evaluation of how well things are really working. 

COVID-19 has seen a huge increase in the use of virtual safety audits and, some limitations aside, they have been generally effective. The ability to increase the number of audits conducted has been a key benefit to virtual audits, as have reduced costs associated with conducting an audit, and increased stakeholder attendance. Audit planning and completion is reliant however on the people involved and their understanding of what needs to be viewed and how it should be communicated, so the choice of auditor is critical. 

On site safety auditing allows the auditor to highlight on site issues which may not always be captured by a camera, for example, rough and uneven ground, proximities around operating plant, even unsafe behaviours which cease when a camera is seen approaching.  

A common problem with auditing is an over-reliance on single metrics; where an auditor may record an issue as a single occurrence, rather than identifying that it is the result of a deterioration in other areas, for example planning and management. This issue can be heightened by virtual safety auditing, where the audit is limited by the ability to record and live-stream the site effectively. If the camera can’t see it, neither can the auditor.

Other limitations to virtual safety auditing include what the persons leading the audit considers important or relevant. They may not consider other fundamental issues including on site co-ordination and interaction with other elements. 

Conclusion 

COVID-19 has changed how we view, plan and manage health and safety in construction, and this shift has highlighted a number of opportunities which, upon more detailed assessment, could improve processes and efficiencies both on and off-site;

  • A greater emphasis on offsite fabrication; expanding the nature and scope of what can be constructed away from the site
  • Focus in design specification for material off loading and handling, transport on site; transport options in design
  • Increased evaluation of risks in design safety analysis. This is led by the project PSDP.  
  • Increased contact with contractors in regard to buildability options. This already occurs but can be more practical particularly in the detail of what is being specified
  • Acknowledging how off-site fabrication options may impact on the physical site, layout and accessibility
  • Agreement of how virtual reviews and be improved particularly in regard to BIM and other modelling options.

A combination of digital technology, innovative and collaborative work practices and adherence to solid safety principles has for the most part enabled designers and developers to deliver safety in construction. The impact of COVID-19 in delivery of safety services has been significant, changing fundamental aspects of safety management, however whether these changes will be permanent remains to be seen.

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