Features - Business

Positives Construction can Take from COVID

Michael Wynn, Managing Director of Yorkshire Brickwork Contractors, in this latest feature for Construction Online, Michael writes about the positives the construction industry can take from the Coronavirus pandemic.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the construction industry was often forgotten about. However, the sector has always been of great importance to the economy and society. The industry has always lacked a dedicated spokesperson for years, but now it is great to see the government has begun to take notice. Specifically, highlighting how construction has contributed to the “resilience” of the nation in this turbulent time.

It’s disappointing that it took such a rampant pandemic for the government to realise construction is of significant economic value and should not be underestimated.

As an industry, we were instructed to keep construction going. We’ve responded by accelerating numerous projects in the UK to expand healthcare capacity as well as vital work to keep the country’s infrastructure running, including new housing, new schools, care homes and even highways and key transport links. This proactiveness and passion will be needed more than ever to emerge from such a crisis.

In the past, it’s clear to see that many industries have undergone tremendous changes. They have reaped the benefits of technology and innovation; however, the construction industry has always feared the idea. According to a recent contractor survey, the construction industry is still primarily dominated by Generation Y and Millennials, which are known for embracing routine and opposed to change. Although they may see the benefits of technology, they fear alienating their employees as they tend to view technological innovation and change as the first step in the loss of status or security.

As a sector, the pandemic has encouraged the development and implementation of new site operating procedures. This will ensure compliance with government guidance and the acceleration of innovation in technology that will benefit the industry monumentally and help increase the use of technology in the sector. For example, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) have updated site operation procedures to reflect the latest Government guidance following the easing of lockdown measures from Saturday 4th July. The ‘one metre plus’ social distancing guidelines require workers to keep two metres apart, or one metre where two metres is not viable. To maintain safety through social distancing on construction sites, many companies have worked to use of wearable technology. This allows companies to keep track of any spreading of the virus.

With government data showing that construction has a higher rate of deaths related to COVID-19 when compared to other sectors, we conducted research and interviewed experts within the industry to find out what technology can be adapted and used in the construction industry to help keep workers safe. It was great to see companies discussing how manual handling and social distancing has been a significant issue in construction due to the pandemic. Therefore, the use of new technology and innovation had become instrumental. For instance, when talking with Tom Cannon, director of Tracked Carriers, he advised, “Manual handling may become an issue if social distancing isn’t respected, many tasks are still carried out with a hands-on approach which can be problematic when several people are required to lift or carry bulky goods.

“New generations of lifting equipment are allowing increased social distancing on-site, spider cranes and high-capacity material lifts are prime examples of this, as they can access restricted areas and allow a single operator to lift and hold heavy items in position and are changing the way many tasks are carried out.”

The use of such innovation will improve site productivity and efficiency for many construction projects. Rather than looking at technology with fear, the pandemic has forced the industry to take on change into everyday work accelerating potential work and completion of projects. We’ve also discovered alternative methods of many routine tasks such as conducting site visits or handing over completed projects due to social distancing and lockdown measures. The use of simple technology such as Google Hangouts or a Zoom call can be much more cost-efficient and save time.

In addition to innovation and technology, the new site operating procedures that have been put in place to keep workers safe has also allowed us to appreciate our employees and their skills more. What we once assumed was a quick and easy job cannot be done without specific team members and their knowledge. This appreciation is key to productivity, and it has allowed us to understand the importance of showing our workers that we are grateful for their work.

In many industries, employees have been able to work from home or enter work by rotations during lockdown. While not necessarily appropriate for the construction industry, we have been able to take the idea and develop our ways of working that may benefit companies efficiency on specific projects. For example, the implementation of shift-working can help reduce the finish time by avoiding rush-hour traffic, on-site congestion and allowing continuous work. This can’t necessarily be a process used on every project, but it shows how operating differently could work to the benefit of employees, management and clients.

Lastly, we have learned that we must all work in close partnership with our clients, supply chains and third-party businesses and be prepared to make cuts to expenditure while ensuring that we are more adaptable to change and build resilience.

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