Unlocking the lockdown– the twofold challenge facing construction industry

Lesley McLeod

By Lesley McLeod, CEO, The Association for Project Safety

The need for construction hasn’t disappeared while we have all be stuck at home. People are still going to need homes to live in, places to work and shop and the infrastructure to get us about. These things may change as we adjust to the new normal – but they are not going to go away. So, the challenge for construction, is twofold: in the short term we have to find ways to work safely; and I the longer term to build a new approach to the lives we are going to live.

The construction sector has not had the best reputation for safe and considerate working. While most trades and professions have worked well together and with their clients, others have placed health and safety at the back of the queue. Just as most businesses and builders have defied the cowboy image, others have brought disgrace to the industry and hazard to workers.  It’s not that people – in the main – don’t know what’s right, they just cut costs and corners, resulting in persistently high rates of death and injury.

I believe there can be a positive legacy from the coronavirus outbreak. I hope this period of enforced reflection will have brought about a realisation that things like on site hygiene are a necessity not an option. Hot running water – and access to simple things like soap – have to be as much of any building site as hard hats and work boots. Social distancing arrangements can be part of new wider safety protocols and that may help bring down workplace accidents.

But there will be an economic hit bringing – at least for a time – a contraction in the size of the industry. Construction will need to pivot to thrive because the revolution has already started.

I know change is happening on many sites – and a rush on the sales of 3D printers. I’ve heard tell of places where masks and visors are being downloaded and printed on site. As the technology develops this will become more normal and the range of items we will consider making there and then will broaden.

For jobs that may be lost on site there could be more production work as a result of off-site prefabrication. For all big building projects foregone there may be more happening locally as businesses reject need for commuting in favour of neighbourhood hubs. Out high-rise, hi-tech towers may be superseded by lower-rise buildings as you can’t get more than four people safely in the lift. Our cities see people returning to live in repurposed office blocks.

The biggest bonuses may be some way off. Construction has, traditionally, been slow to change. Our roads and railways, homes and offices are recognisably the same today – and built in much the same way – as they have been for years. But forced change and the rapid need to adopt new thinking may not be all bad. We may come to thank the virus for new opportunities and a safer industry.