CONSTRUCTION WORKERS and their families are facing an ever increasing risk by continuing to work on site, says Unite, the construction industry union.
Unite believes that alongside urgent contingencies to enforce safety on sites, the government must introduce immediate measures to ensure that the self-employed (which comprises over half of the construction industry) are covered by its wage assistance scheme, to the same extent as measures already announced for employees.
Legal experts have said closing construction sites could protect employers just as much as workers.
Emma Swan, head of commercial employment law at Forbes Solicitors, explained, “Governments shutting down non-critical construction sites could help protect employers just as much as it does workers. Government coronavirus guidance is for workers to keep at least two metres apart. This is difficult to enforce and impractical on some sites. There’s also a risk that this guidance could end-up increasing site risks for workers as they try to keep the specified two metres.
David Mayor, at Forbes Solicitors, added, “The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM 2015) are underpinned by the need to identify and control site hazards, avoiding or reducing risk where possible. It will be difficult for government guidance to be wholly observed and if it ends-up actually increasing risk, employees could reasonably claim a breach of the regulations or other health and safety legislation. This is a needless and avoidable scenario for both employers and workers.”
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said, “There is an immediate public health emergency on construction sites, due to a lack of social distancing.
“Construction workers are currently facing a stark choice arising from negligence. That means they risk their health, or face the prospect of job loss, hardship and hunger.
“By construction workers being compelled to work unprotected and travel, the lack of government safety coordination is risking their health, the health of their families and the health of the general public.”
The policy of social distancing has collapsed on many construction sites with workers displaying pictures of overcrowded buses, queues to enter sites, packed canteens and workers working in close proximity. There are also major public health concerns about large number of construction workers travelling on the tube in London.
At the weekend, Unite called on the government to extend its wage assistance scheme. The union advised that HMRC could easily identify over a million workers who are currently paid via the Construction Industry Scheme (CIS).
These workers are considered to be self-employed but are taxed at source by HMRC.
The problems facing construction are made more complex as most major construction contractors employ few if any workers directly. Work is usually subcontracted and workers are engaged by subcontractors and in some cases agencies.
The Department of Business Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has established a coronavirus taskforce, which excludes the union.
All construction work needs to be tightly controlled with strict risk assessments and social distance rules applied at all times.
Gail Cartmail added, “Contractors have a moral duty to ensure that all the workers on their sites are safe and financially protected.
“No worker should have to make a life or death decision arising from government or contractor negligence.”