Unite has called on the government and construction employers to take urgent action to tackle rising COVID-19 transmission rates in the industry.
The construction union made its call after Professor Calum Semple told Sky’s Sophie Ridge programme on Sunday 22 November that: “You would have thought working outside wouldn’t be a risk, but many people in construction are actually working inside before buildings are made COVID-safe.
“So the construction industry has turned out to be a risk that I was surprised to see.”
Jerry Swain Unite’s national officer for construction, said: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, Unite has warned that construction workers were at considerable risk.
“Huge swathes of the industry operate through bogus self-employment or agency labour, where workers have no employment rights and engagements are short. In these circumstances and with unemployment growing, workers fear that if they raise concerns, they will have their contracts terminated and will struggle to find new employment.”
Jerry continued: “The professor is right that a great deal of construction work is undertaken inside, often in poorly ventilated areas. The risk of transmission is further increased in poor weather, as workers seek protection indoors from the elements.
“This situation has been made worse by the inadequacy of the site operating procedures published by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC). The government feeds into this body, so it must be aware of the failure to address the need for the compulsory wearing of masks where workers can’t work in a socially distanced manner. Unite has demanded this repeatedly warning that it was central to getting transmission in the sector under control.
“This failure is likely to have contributed to the high transmission rate and has seriously undermined the social distancing messages vital to the protection of workers.”
Jerry went on to say: “While larger sites, particularly where Unite has been actively involved, have been better in ensuring COVID safe working practices are enacted, such measures on smaller sites and in the domestic sector are either weak or non-existent.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Unite has argued that construction employers need to ensure that workers are protected from when they leave home until when they return home at night. The increased level of transmission in the sector demonstrates this is simply not happening.”
Following Professor Semple’s revelations, Unite will be writing to the CLC and the government to call for the creation of separate site operating procedures to cover both indoor and outdoor construction work.
The union is also highly concerned that many construction workers remain unable to self-isolate due to financial reasons as they do not qualify for the job retention scheme, self-employment grants or extra payments for self-isolating. Unite believes this is an additional factor in the increasing construction transmission rates.
Jerry added: “Unless the government and construction employers ensure that there are strict rules on mask wearing, that social distancing and cleaning regimes are being followed, and workers can afford to self-isolate, transmission rates will continue to climb.
“Unite remains fully committed to working with employers and the government to address these issues and improve COVID safety for construction workers.”
Unite has produced a workplace poster detailing the basic requirements to ensure COVID site safety. The union is also operating a confidential email (email@example.com) and hotline (0207 622 2442) for construction workers who are concerned about COVID-19 safety.