COVID-19 has meant that the construction industry has faced one of the biggest challenges to safety in modern history, the impact of which cannot be underestimated. As a universal building envelope organisation with the biggest call on labour in the country, we wanted to share how we have been ensuring we are COVID ready, allowing us to continue to offer a one-stop-shop solution when it comes to building works across the whole spectrum of sectors.
The Construction Leadership Council have published site operating procedures that have been amended each time the government has relaxed restrictions. Avonside Group has kept pace with both the government and Construction Leadership Council guidelines. However, each of our clients have also implemented their own guidelines based on government advice but tailored to their own sites and circumstances. Our Health and Safety department have been extremely diligent and attentive in adapting the RAMS (Risk Assessment Method Statements) for each individual client to ensure their guidelines, along with those of the government and the Construction Leadership Council are adhered to.
As well as keeping up to date with the latest government advice in this ever-evolving situation, our Health and Safety department has done a sterling job at keeping our operatives on-site up to date via text messaging. This has resulted in operatives being fully inducted before they returned to work from being on furlough. Our team have also advised our operatives on the financial help available, such as how they could benefit from the grace period granted for MOTs throughout the lockdown period.
In our Health and Safety team’s bid to make our operatives feel supported, they kept in touch with them at least once a week. Going beyond merely compiling the latest guidance and sending it to our operatives, the Health and Safety department invited feedback from operatives asking questions like: ‘Are these new measures practical? Can we make this work? How are these new rules going to work for you?’ thus welcoming the operatives to get involved – it is them that carry out the work on-site after all!
Our Health and Safety team have also had to work together with other trades to coordinate the Group’s response to the virus as different guidance is needed for each of our divisions, from our Roofing Division to our internal works divisions such as our Plumbing Division. For example, there are more restrictions on the number of operatives allowed to enter a house. Avonside recently expanded into plumbing and heating acquiring Whites Plumbing Services Ltd (WPS) in late 2019 and M.Rogerson Ltd in early 2020. Our Group SHEQ (Safety, Health, Environment and Quality) Manager Sarah Burke has revealed that it has been “quite a learning curve” mastering plumbing Health and Safety and the different aspects associated with internal works and has “developed the experience of Avonside’s Health and Safety team in a positive way”.
Sarah has ensured that there is a specialist for each division in Avonside Group’s Health and Safety department. For example, Steve Reddish is responsible to Health and Safety in our Energy Division, Harry Henderson heads up Health and Safety for our Plumbing and Heating Division, whilst Sarah leads the Avonside Group on all Group operations Health and Safety. As Sarah explained this strategy means: “the Health and Safety team members each have niche knowledge on a certain area of the work the Group does, meaning they can act as a single point of contact and the department isn’t spread too thin when things are uncertain. This helps our clients build a trusting relationship with each relevant Health and Safety staff member.”
Due to the COVID-19 virus, we have had to assess how we handle suppliers and their employees and how we deal with the receiving of deliveries both on site and when items like stationary get delivered to our branch offices. We have had to adopt measures ensuring our employees have maintained a distance from our suppliers making deliveries. This has been made possible by Sarah liaising closely with suppliers and their employees to coordinate deliveries and make sure the guidance being issued by Avonside and our suppliers both align. Utilising technology such as PDAs have facilitated contactless deliveries and reduced the number of people entering sites and offices.
At the time of writing this, we still currently have a lot of our branch staff working from home where possible, with only essential personnel back working within the office or each branch. Our Health and Safety department’s role is to minimise risk and the risk of catching the virus is reduced significantly if staff continue to work from home where possible. Despite government guidance saying it is now safe for people to turn to offices if certain safety measures are in place, pre-empting a second wave of the virus, Sarah and our CEO Eddie Stanton have taken the decision for staff to continue working remotely. In recognition of our continuing focus on our people, we have recently appointed a new Head of HR, Emma Callacher, who will be working with the Health and Safety teams and the Directors in developing plans to deal with any eventualities caused by localised lockdowns or a large scale second wave of the virus.
We are pleased to have been able to seamlessly adapt to group-wide remote working thanks to our responsive IT team. In fact, we trialled remote working a week before the country went into lockdown. The successful transition from traditional office-based working to remote working was a fast one and almost over-night our IT system and staff had adjusted.
Sarah must authorise each individual employee’s return to work from furlough. She only does this after carrying out an individual assessment of that employee, which includes identifying if they have any underlying health conditions that may be exacerbated by the virus and addressing how to overcome any challenges they pose if this is the case. She also examines if each branch has certain safety measures in place, such as access to the right PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), hygiene aids like hand sanitiser and social distancing practices in place, using a case checklist, before staff at that branch can return to work, demonstrating the rigorous processes we have had in place throughout the pandemic.
With international travel opening up again to some countries, Sarah has warned that staff going on holidays are likely to have to self-isolate when they return home, which shouldn’t cause too much disruption to staff who were already working from home.
We’re proud to report that Sarah passed her NEBOSH Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety a year ago, which is the highest level of qualification you can get before gaining a Masters in Health and Safety.
Sarah isn’t the only staff member with up-to-date Health and Safety qualifications under her belt. A company culture that enjoys heavily investing in staff members’ health and safety qualifications has seen all our Health and Safety staff become members of IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health), which is a professional body and a respected accreditation in addition to Health and Safety qualifications. In addition, all our Health and Safety staff, including Sarah, hold the NEBOSH General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety or the NEBOSH Certificate in Construction Health and Safety which cements their other ongoing training. In order to ensure all relevant staff members could do their NEBOSH qualifications, Avonside Group has invested in excess of £40K, further highlighting our commitment to continuous staff training and development.
Our dedication to staff development extends to our graduate management trainees, who spend time with our Health and Safety department as part of their company induction, receiving one-to-one tuition from Sarah. All our graduate management trainees all undertake the IOSH Managing Safely course to prepare them for managing safety and progressing onto the NEBOSH General qualification.
Harry Henderson has stepped up to the role of being Avonside Group’s single point of contact about all things related to COVID-19 after completing an ETCAL Level 2 Award in the Responsibilities of a Social Distancing Compliance Officer, a course provided by O’Neill and Brennan Construction Ltd and based on Construction Leadership Council guidance.
Harry explained: “Sarah and I have spent a lot of time revising and creating safety documentation for both office and site working to enable the business to return to work across all of our customers’ projects and to return to work in our branches across the country.
“It has been a demanding time to try to align our Risk Assessments and Method Statements with the Coronavirus Controls that have been implemented across our entire customer base,” he added.
The majority of our Branch Managers also hold the NEBOSH General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety so they have a good foundation of basic Health and Safety knowledge to be able to run day-to-day operations and make decisions without being dependent on the Health and Safety department, who are there for when specialist knowledge is required, like in a pandemic! Branch Managers having a basic understanding of Health and Safety means they know what’s expected and what the Health and Safety department is trying to achieve when the Health and Safety team speak to them about any new guidance. It also means Branch Managers have the practical knowledge to put any guidance issued in place.
Sarah said: “It’s likely that staff have missed the social aspect of being in an office and being able to chat to colleagues will mean a lot to employees when they return to the office.”
Indeed, it’s not just staff members’ physical health Sarah and her team have been supporting. Throughout the pandemic, the Health and Safety department have taken extra care to remind furloughed staff and operatives about a mental health and wellbeing app, The Construction Industry Helpline app by Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity. Any staff member can log in to the app at any time and access useful health and financial advice. The app intuitively checks up on the user every 24 hours and offers help if a user tells the app that they are experiencing low moods.
“As well as tracking your sleep pattern and providing an assessment on how you can manage your stress levels, the app allows you to plot your moods across a time period and removes the barrier of having to reveal to a person you are experiencing issues that often have a stigma attached to them, such as depression or drinking more than usual,” explained Sarah. “At the same time, you still receive advice from the trained professionals that helped develop the app.”
These proactive measures and approaches have contributed to Avonside Group fortunately not experiencing any positive confirmed COVID19 cases. In incidences where personnel have shown symptoms on-site, clients have quarantined accordingly. Sarah praised the action taken by all involved: “From suppliers to operatives and clients, everyone has reacted positively and appropriately to the whole situation.”
Avonside Group continues to hope that all staff, suppliers and clients stay safe and well during these unprecedented times.