Roads Online web series: The importance of playing it safe

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic Roads Online is publishing a four-article series covering the challenges and opportunities within the construction industry. This is the first instalment of the four part series, with Downer and AAPA highlighting how they are responding with best practice safety measures.

With much of the construction and infrastructure industry continuing to operate though the COVID-19 pandemic, new safety measures are helping to ensure both workers and business are protected.

As a result, the industry is adapting to a new way of working, implementing social distancing, increased hygiene practices and in some cases different working hours.

Each state and territory have their own specific guidelines for operating a construction site safely during the pandemic and many more have been released by unions around the country.

Nationwide organisation Safe Work Australia has also put out guidelines specific to construction sites. The organisation recognises that the amount of workers on a construction project can significantly vary day to day and suggests many control measures to minimise the risk and possible spread of COVID-19.

There are three main control measures that Safe Work Australia recommend be applied: physical distancing, hygiene and health checks and quarantine for workers returning from overseas or those with known exposure to the virus. These come alongside other measures, such as cancelling non-essential visits, for incidents such as deliveries or contractors in the workplace and communication with workers.

The organisation suggests measures for construction sites such as limiting the number of workers on site where possible and limiting physical interactions between those workers by creating specific walkways, staggering mealtimes and conducting meetings online.

Regular health checks are also recommended for all workers. If workers observe their colleagues displaying symptoms they are also encouraged to report this, along with directing all workers to report to management if they are experiencing symptoms themselves.

As the amount of time the coronavirus lasts on surfaces can vary, Safe Work Australia recommends increasing the cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and all site amenities. Personal hygiene is also recommended, including coughing into the elbow, disposing properly of tissues and washing hands, among a host of other measures.

CEO of the Australian Asphalt Pavement Association (AAPA) Carlos Rial said that the industry has a responsibility to Australia in delivering roadworks as an essential service, ensuring safe access for Australian communities.

“Being a responsible safe industry that restricts the spread of COVID-19 also assists with employment, providing security for families and helping the economy,” he said.

Mr. Rial said he is confident the industry is maintaining safe social distancing, good hygiene and have in place the right action plans should flu like symptoms present on-site.

“In addition, controls are being implemented for external providers before they enter our sites, restricting access, ensuring where possible they stay in their vehicles, checking for symptoms and also whether they have been in contact with anyone who has been overseas in recent months. Those who present with flu-like symptoms are not permitted on-site,” he said.

“For those that are away from home for work, they are now in single-room accommodation and additional vehicles are being provided to ensure spaced occupants. On-site work zones are also being defined to ensure physical spacing.”

Mr. Rial said some companies are also committing to minimising the cross pollination of sites and crews.

“In this regard companies are allocating staff, supervisors, crew and batchers to specific projects or sites wherever possible. They are effectively now compartmentalised platoons of troops, that if required can be quarantined, in the unlikely event of infection,” he said.

Digital technology is also being picked up by some in the construction industry to restrict touch points from on-site documentation.

“Companies are shifting to electronic lodgement of timesheets. They are also moving to E-docketing for the traceability of trucks loaded with asphalt coming to the site,” Mr. Rial said.

“In some cases, traditional sign-in to site methods are no longer being used. Supervisors can sign everyone in personally through technology. Many company contract requirements can also be done through personal single-user devices, such as safety checks and project hold points.”

In regard to continued education around these increased safety measures, Mr. Rial says many companies are using webinars on the subject to eliminate contact and bring home the importance of extra safety on site.

“AAPA is moving its traditional face-to-face training to virtual classrooms and online learning platforms to allow skills sets to be continually developed in a safe way,” he said.

One of the major contractors in Australia, Downer, is implementing many of these practices. Jim Appleby, General Manager of Reconomy at Downer, has put on another hat on to lead the Downer Road Services division COVID-19 response team.

“We have set up a COVID-19 response team in our roads business so we can ensure all of our businesses are informed and up to date,” Mr. Appleby said.

At the heart of Downer’s response are bespoke business continuity plans, allowing the company to provide a response that is cognisant of the nuances of each of its businesses in each state.

These business unit and site-specific plans aim to ensure that all employees are ready to respond to the pandemic.

“I can’t overstate how important it is to stop and prevent the spread of this virus and keep the industry moving. The relationship between the two is inextricably linked,” Mr. Appleby said.

Downer have gone a step beyond social distancing and created a system called compartmentalisation, which means teams are segmented and kept apart.

“If the virus does get into the business, it’s important our compartments are there so that it doesn’t spread through the business. We have put a lot of work into creating those compartments to make sure that the virus can be contained if necessary. COVID-19 has presented new challenges for all of us,” Mr. Appleby said.

The company has also been using a host of digital technologies to enable or enhance social distancing practices.

“We have expanded our paperless technologies and app-based solutions for our sites, to be able to maintain and surpass the social distancing requirements and embrace those rules,” Mr. Appleby said.

He said the business is using apps such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, alongside specific app-based solutions to suit a host of construction tasks.

“It’s really about our paperless technologies, so our people can operate effectively without social contact. We have some really simple systems, such as a Google Forms system so we can document where people are and where they have been, to complex bespoke paperless solutions to support our operations.”

Mr. Appleby said it is certainly a challenge moving to more technological practices, but he believes it’s bringing out the best in the business.

“A lot of the practices we are doing now will become business as usual they are here to stay that is for sure,” he said.

Education has also been a large focus for Downer to ensure all of its workers, whether full time or casual are aware of the new site requirements.

“In the situation we are facing, we are finding real time information is the key, because it’s moving so rapidly and we are going through various stages of restriction issued by governments – our reaction has to stay up to speed,” Mr. Appleby said.

Downer’s best practice guide as part of the business continuity plan is updated daily and that is shared across the business so that workers are able to pick up the relevant sections and ensure they are implemented.

“With our teams and our people who are spread far and wide in the remote and urban situations we have to be agile to ensure everyone is informed,” Mr. Appleby said.

While Downer’s COVID-19 response is a central part of the business, Mr. Appleby said it has also been very important to ensure other safety campaigns such as the Zero Harm campaign are not overwhelmed by the virus.

“Still the biggest risk to our people are the critical risks that we face every day, such as the likes of public traffic, plant pedestrian interface on our site and many more,” he said.

Mr. Appleby was chosen to head up the COVID-19 response team, as Downer wanted to have senior people involved to implement safety measures specific to the pandemic. This way, individual businesses within Downer could continue to operate in a business as usual manner.

For example, a visitor protocol was quickly established for Downer sites so that more Zero Harm observations could be performed safely without visitors interacting directly with the team.

“It’s in our control to make sure industry is following the rules, instil the behaviours, practicing social distancing, good hygiene and all the other best practice initiatives that go above and beyond to keep industry moving,” Mr. Appleby said.

He said the construction industry provides critical infrastructure for people to get to work, including emergency workers and health workers, and the industry needs to continue to play a strong part in that.

“I think our teams have been brilliant at accepting this change. This is a change to how we work and behave. I have seen some brilliant examples of this across our business and across others. I think people are rising to the challenge and its becoming business as usual.”

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