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Building safely in the time of coronavirus

What can developers, builders and contractors do to stay on their feet?
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Building safely in the time of coronavirus

Building safely in the time of coronavirus

15 April 2020

With the rapid rise in COVID-19 case numbers and shocking scenarios dominating the news, we see one industry after another taking a hit as every day reveals new losses and restrictions. But so far, the building and construction industry is still standing, despite problems pressing in on many sides.

Whether it’s clients who are suddenly unable or unwilling to pay or wanting to postpone or cancel projects, disputes and delays in products and materials, or workers needing leave, it’s no wonder construction project managers are feeling somewhat besieged.

So what can developers, builders and contractors do to stay on their feet through this crisis, keep themselves and their workers safe and help the business survive?

What you need to know

Under the circumstances, a temporary slowdown is inevitable. But it won’t last forever, and there are ways to get through it.

On the economic front, it’s important to make sure you’re aware of current opportunities for assistance, such as the massive wage subsidy ‘job keeper’ scheme. Businesses with workers who’ve lost their incomes or are on reduced hours can register their interest with the Australian Tax Office to receive ‘job keeper payments’ of $1,500 per fortnight to be passed on to each of those workers. It’s not only for employees of the business, but also for sole traders and casuals who’ve been in the same job for more than 12 months.

On the day-to-day operations front, you may be experiencing delays in the delivery of materials and products you need to get on with the work in hand. The impact on your business might depend on whether your building contract includes some protection for you, so check the wording of your contracts.

Open communication with your suppliers, contractors and clients can reveal possibilities, for example, using different materials or products, and rescheduling to accommodate likely delays. You may well be able to claim extensions of time.

Further information on long service leave options, dispute resolution and scaling down business operations is available from Australia’s Housing Industry Association.

Staying alive and well

On the health front, staying alive and well depends on maintaining a safe work environment. An essential first step is to check whether any of the people you work with, or who work for you, are feeling unwell or have any flu-like symptoms, or if they’ve recently travelled overseas or been in close contact with anyone who has COVID-19. They should be directed to seek medical advice immediately: stay away from the worksite, get tested and self-isolate.

Access to display homes must take account of government restrictions and the need for sanitising and maintenance of physical distancing requirements. This means carefully considering display home staffing, appointment times and spacing, as well as cleaning arrangements.

Managing construction sites

The management of construction sites presents its own challenges. Site managers and personnel all have a duty to take reasonable care for their own and others’ health and safety. In practice, this means taking precautions to minimise health risks.

Access to building sites must be limited – essential people only on site, and the rule of four square metres of space per person must be complied with, as far as is reasonably practicable. This means restricting the number of people working in close proximity to each other, as far as you can. If particular tasks cannot be accomplished unless two or more people are working close to each other – for example, lifting heavy window frames – consider the use of personal protective equipment such as masks, if available.

There should be no more than six workers engaged on a residential building site at any one time. Tradies and other workers should be scheduled and given work zones away from other people. Break times and regulatory inspections also need to be staggered or scheduled to keep people separated. As far as is practicable, deliveries should be organised to minimise contact between individuals.

Adequate facilities for cleaning and personal hygiene must be provided on every site. Any common areas must be cleaned and disinfected at least daily, any shared tools or equipment must be cleaned before and after each use, ventilation should be increased as far as possible, and all workers must be given access to whatever personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and eye protection are appropriate to the work they are doing on site.

Frequent handwashing or hand sanitising is critically important, and workers should be instructed to avoid physical contact with others – coughing or sneezing into their elbows, no shaking hands, and staying away if they’re unwell.

With patience, careful organisation and suitable precautions, the beginnings of recovery from the pandemic could soon be on the horizon.

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