Why the housebuilding industry must balance getting back to work with safety

From Erika Taylor, a director of RSK, an engineering and environmental consultancy

The early shutdown of construction sites across the country saw the housebuilding sector suffer more than many other industries. Unsurprisingly, housebuilders and developers welcomed the first steps out of lockdown and the industry gradually beginning to restart. Although only essential infrastructure works, construction of temporary hospitals and a minority of housebuilding projects could continue during the height of lockdown, it is estimated that more than 86% of construction sites have now reopened in England and Wales as the lockdown begins to loosen. Major housebuilders in the UK have now announced their plans to restart operations and open show homes and sales offices.

But, with more housebuilders planning their return to work and the housing market beginning to be re-energised, the priority for construction companies must now be to balance the safety of their employees and customers with restarting operations. One recent survey showed that four in five workers were worried about returning to work.

The worst thing for the industry would be for it to be accused of loose safety measures; many will remember that there were several instances, just a few weeks ago, of construction sites allegedly flouting social distancing instructions, which resulted in bad publicity for the sector.

The government has published rules to help businesses to operate safely during the coronavirus crisis. So, as housebuilders restart, they need to be seen to be sticking to the guidance, although this will not be easy on a construction site. Measures to maintain social distance are now becoming engrained in everyone’s minds and construction sites have introduced many changes to limit contact between workers on site. The guidance also outlines what businesses need to do to ensure that workplaces are properly sanitised before reopening and remain clean as operations resume.

Further concerns for the housebuilding industry have arisen as there has been strong criticism and confusion around the new guidance, which many people feel is contradictory; for example, allowing potential house buyers to start visiting houses to view them, but banning them from going into their relatives’ homes. So, putting the right plans in place to ensure the safety of customers and employees is important.

A recent poll showed that people are still worried about undertaking activities that involve venturing outside their homes. This includes viewing homes. For example, potential buyers may, inadvertently or not, touch the surfaces of a new show home when viewing a property. Prospective buyers will want reassurance that the home they are viewing is safe or these potential purchasers may be put off at a time when builders need to sell more houses to get back on their feet again in the wake of the downturn in sales caused by the pandemic.

Housebuilders need to prioritise health and safety and give their employees and customers reassurance that their sites are safe from coronavirus. RSK has just worked with Avant Homes, which operates 52 construction sites across the Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland, to step up protection for employees and customers as their operations begin to restart. Our specialist teams provided cleaning, decontamination and protection services for their construction sites, including portacabins, offices, canteens, meeting rooms, storage and drying rooms, welfare facilities and equipment such as forklifts. Avant Homes understood the potential risk and urgency, and set tight timescales to ensure that their sites were safe for their workforce. Show homes and sales units were also decontaminated using novel disinfectant technology to destroy any pathogen on contact and protect surfaces against coronavirus for up to 30 days.

Good practice like this will give workforces and prospective buyers reassurance but, perhaps more importantly, will return confidence to the housebuilding industry at a crucial time.