Ensuring health and safety in the workplace is already a critically important issue, especially within the built environment industry. Organisations or worksites that invest in occupational health and safety perform better, reduce turnover and help workers do their jobs more effectively. However, COVID-19 has prioritised workplace and safety like never before. Companies have been forced to act quickly and decisively to not only ensure the safety of employees but the day-to-day continuation of key projects. Even recently, construction sites in both Victoria and NSW experienced a snap shut down due to the number of positive cases linked to worksites across the sector. It has become clear that COVID compliance has become a significant part of workplace health and safety and that effective leadership and management within this space, will be critical for the built environment industry to complete the mounting number of infrastructure projects in the pipeline. Consequently, in conjunction with safe work month, Design & Build explore the shifting state of workplace health and safety within the built environment industry, and what will be a focus for the industry moving forward:
Like with the majority of industries worldwide, the construction industry had to adjust the majority of its processes and systems to minimise the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19, such as physically distancing and additional hygiene and screening precautions. However, there are some unique factors within the industry that make implementing the necessary COVID-19 safety precautions difficult. For example, the nature of work being conducted means that certain tasks cannot be performed remotely and require workers on site. Sites traditionally will also have multiple pieces of communal equipment or machinery and especially on bigger commercial projects, will use personnel hoists and lifts for workers to travel across the worksite; all things that pose an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. Consequently, on top of all the standard health and safety procedures occurring on a worksite, management and health and safety professionals also had to develop control measures to best minimise these risks, such as providing PPE to all workers on site where possible, limiting employee movement between levels and floors on-site where possible, managing and organising the regular cleaning of shared equipment, transit areas etc (Work Safe Victoria, 2021).
Another unique challenge the built environment has faced during this time is the mounting pressure on the industry to deliver key projects. The industry is seen as a vital part of stimulating the post-COVID economy and there have been significant incentives from the federal government to start work on ‘shovel ready’ projects. For example, transport civil engineering projects to maintain road and rail networks across different states have been deemed ‘essential’ and have received considerable financial investment so that work can start immediately. Schemes like converting roads to cycle lanes, or the construction of new train stations have become a key focus for state governments, as they try to adapt to the new travel patterns arising from COVID-19 (Laverty et al.,2020). Because of the sheer number of mounting projects, it’s important that the built environment industry can develop measures that allow workers to work safely, while still in a flexible and productive manner that is better equipped to withstand COVID-19 outbreaks, snap lockdowns and even future pandemics. And building this level of resilience won’t be possible without effective health and safety practices and leadership in place.
Safety leadership should exist at all levels of an organisation and across all industries. While the level of safety maturity will vary from person to person, the aim of an effective safety leadership program is to create a safer and more productive workplace through education and empowerment. An effective safety leadership program will appoint safety leaders at all levels (not just upper management) and across multiple segments. As these leaders develop their practices over time, they can pass their learnings on to others, motivating and empowering individuals across the business to improve and drive health practices and cultivating a culture of safety within the workplace (Worksafe QLD,2020).
Within the construction industry, safety leadership usually starts with the organisation’s own safety leaders like their HSE Manager and HSE advisors, as well as buy-in from the upper leadership team. Traditionally, these safety leaders would engage with the wider organisation and train fellow workers, in face-to-face settings (usually meetings with safety committees and safety action groups). So the challenge with safety leadership programs now is how to effectively communicate with the wider team while still following COVID protocol. Recent studies in the UK have found that there has been an increased use of technology to help communicate with and update workers on safety processes and guidelines. This has been in the form of teleconferencing apps which have been used to host meetings and the increased use of social media channels set up within projects to communicate more effectively and remotely, like whatsapp for example. Studies have also found that QR Code technology could also be beneficial within this space, helping to track individual briefing records within a project, which prior to the pandemic would have been captured via paper and pen signature of receipt (Golightly, Ryan & Stiles, 2021). Looking forward, it will be interesting to see how safety leaders will use technology to help improve safety practices, culture and behaviour and if skills with particular platforms or interpreting technological data will become a requirement for those within HSE.
While COVID-19 has caused many challenges for the built environment industry, it has also created opportunities for those within the health and safety space, and become a catalyst for the improvement of safety processes and procedures. For example, the need to re-design work and process to align with COVD-19 guidance over the last 18 months has presented an opportunity for a more general work re-design to improve safety. For example, in a recent observation on a worksite, workers who were placing steelwork columns (e.g., for steel frames or for rail overhead line masts) onto bolts were using metal rods to push the steels into place to maintain social distancing, when previously they would have done the task themselves manually (Golightly, Ryan & Stiles, 2021). Not only does this new workaround adhere to COVID-19 restrictions, but it improves the overall safety of the workers, as it reduces the risk of their fingers and hands getting entrapped by the steel frames. Safety managers and supervisors now have a unique opportunity to observe and learn from these COVID workarounds and implement them into their safety procedures and practice.
Furthermore, the need to adapt to COVID-19 has created a readiness to change throughout the built environment industry. Being able to respond rapidly to health and safety-related change and often re-configuring entire work processes has demonstrated to management what is achievable when priority is given to health and safety. Paired with the fact that COVID-19 guidelines and requirements have become synonymous with construction sites being operational, indicates that health and safety (and those that manage and lead it) will remain a priority for the industry moving forward. The pandemic has also put a spotlight on the ‘health and hygiene’ component to health and safety, which has previously been overlooked on construction sites in order to focus on safety. Like, with so many industries COVID-19 has presented the industry and those within the health and safety space to consider issues around hygiene and over aspects of ‘health’ like mental well-being, and how these factors can be better addressed in a worksite’s health and safety practices moving forward.
Ultimately, while COVID-19 has been a challenge to navigate for all industries, it has highlighted areas for improvement and within the built environment industry, presented opportunities for Health and Safety workers to improve current processes and the overall health & safety of workers. The demand for skilled professionals within this field is only going to continue as companies try to manage and maintain safe covid practices while continuing to work through Australia’s growing infrastructure pipeline.
Design & Build have a number of consultants that specialise in recruiting Health & Safety professionals within the built environment industry. Consequently, if you are looking for new opportunities within health and safety, or want to have a general chat about the job market, there’s never been a better time to reach out. You can contact our team at the below address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or peruse the exciting opportunities currently available here: https://bit.ly/3iQZQui
 Work Safe Victoria. (2021). Managing the risk of COVID-19 exposure: Construction industry. Work Safe Victoria. Retrieved from: https://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/managing-risk-covid-19-exposure-construction-industry
 Laverty, A. A., Millett, C., Majeed, A., & Vamos, E. P. (2020). COVID-19 presents opportunities and threats to transport and health. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 113(7), 251– 254. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hfm.20882
 Worksafe QLD. (2020). Safety Leadership at Work. Worksafe QLD. Retrieved from: https://www.worksafe.qld.gov.au/safety-and-prevention/creating-safe-work/safety-leadership-and-culture/safety-leadership-at-work