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Coping with Covid – How the construction industry can move forward

06 November 2020

In our latest in a series of blogs looking at how engineers have adapted to the global pandemic, civil engineer Jack Tregartha looks at the challenges to overcome for a successful, post-Covid transition. 

Coping with Covid – How the construction industry can move forward
How construction workers can move forward post-Covid

Most of the construction industry continued to work throughout Covid-19 in accordance with Government guidelines although we were met with many challenges on the way.

Below, I have listed the four main challenges I have faced as an engineer throughout lockdown and how we’re overcoming those issues to continue to deliver projects safely and effectively.

1. The 2 metre social distancing rule

The challenge: To prevent the spread of the virus, a 2 metre social distancing rule between people has been introduced This is a monumental challenge for the construction industry where workers are used to operating in close proximity, especially for works such as drainage where confined spaces in trench boxes are common.

The answer: Each segment of work activity needs thorough planning to eliminate working within a 2 metre distance. Where this isn’t possible implementation of controlled measures is advisable, such as reducing the time and frequency of close contact. Where possible workers shouldn’t interact face-to- face but side by side or facing away from each other. There should be a provision for more ventilation in closed spaces and a more intense focus on cleaning surfaces and tools.

2. Site visits

The challenge: Reduced social contact means that site visits aren’t permitted, and this rule ultimately affects how the client, designer and contractor liaise with each other over project and planning issues. Site briefing rooms have also been made unavailable as there is a maximum of six people allowed in each room. The average construction site has nearly 50 operatives, so this causes a challenge for construction foremen who need to address all workers on site.

The answer: The use of software applications such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype has enabled all parties involved with the construction process to communicate as effectively as before without the need for social contact. Staggered and outdoor briefings (that allow for 2m social distancing) are also being carried out.

3. Costs

The challenge: Larger sites are now required as a result of social distancing in order ro accommodate canteens, offices, car parks and walkways to name a few. This has resulted in an increase in costs on live construction projects. Reduced working outputs have also had an impact on construction projects as tasks are taking longer to complete due to reduced close working and an inability to have labour intensive small areas of work with several site workers.

The answer: Tenders are now put together factoring in the additional cost of larger areas required for operations. Bespoke marquees are proving popular for site canteen spaces as these provide large sheltered areas for site operatives to have their break. Planning your tasks and putting in additional programme time to allow for the reduced number of operatives allowed in one area of a site is also advisable.

4. The supply chain

The challenge: During the lockdown many suppliers (materials and sub-contractors) were forced to shut down or reduce working output by furloughing members of staff to reduce overheads during a difficult time. This has meant that getting specialist sub-contractors onto a site to complete critical elements of works is difficult. Similarly, with materials, whilst many contractors carry on, the supply chain has struggled to keep up with demands increasing. The lead times for simple items such as drainage pipes, manhole rings and ducting cement can be six weeks or more.

The answer: Planning tools such as CS Project™ have enabled programmes to be developed incorporating these lead times into works. Personally, this has enabled me to specify the exact date the materials are required. This, coupled with a flexible attitude from suppliers, has helped us to ensure that projects have been delivered in a timely manner.

The following tools and practices are essential for the smooth-running of construction during the continuing pandemic.

  • Increased off-site construction - Off-site construction has been in the background for a while now but, I strongly believe that the pandemic will ‘fast-track’ this technology. Not only does off-site construction have substantial benefits in quality, cost and delivery, but reducing the number of operatives working on a site must ultimately contribute to the reduction in transmission of Covid-19.
  • Planning Tools - The use of planning tools during the pandemic has ultimately guided us through the initial impact of Covid-19. I see a bigger emphasis on using these tools to suitably plan, manage and build works safely.
  • Machine Control - The use of machine control (MC) on operated plants I would say is at a 50/50 split with non-machine control plants. Driving MC on all plant is essential to reducing contact. Designs can be uploaded remotely by the construction management team to allow the operator to begin work immediately.
  • BIM Modelling - Similarly to off-site construction, BIM modelling has been available for some time however has not yet taken off in the industry to a large extent. The benefits of modelling a site from inception to completion will help construction planners to see where there are opportunities to reduce social contact during the construction phase. The infrastructure we deliver needs to be smarter and adapted for social distancing in public and 3D BIM modelling will help make our public spaces more social distancing-friendly.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has changed our industry forever. As Charles Darwin famously said “It is not the strongest of species that survives nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Read more on how the construction industry is coping with lockdown in another in our series of blogs here.

  • Jack Tregartha Eng Tech MICE, site engineer at Buckingham Group Contracting Ltd at Buckingham Group Contracting Ltd