Article Safety

AGS Welfare Guidance, a step in the right direction

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Image provided by AECOM

The industries expectations to all health, safety and wellbeing requirements have changed through the years, as we understand and acknowledge the negative impacts work activities and environments can have. In the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s I recall working on construction projects where the requirements to wear a safety helmet and safety boots were not amongst the site rules, where all materials were required to be carried up a ladder, normally by young inexperienced labourers, and the idea of leading-edge protection was an alien concept.

With all of these examples and many, many more, through the demonstration of the harm captured within accident statistics, the Health and Safety Executive working with industry stakeholders have developed new legislation, approved codes of practice and guidance to reduce the risk of being harmed while at work. This approach has been transformative to the construction and many other industries and benefited those working within them.

Although successful in achieving its outcomes, this change has not always been viewed as positive at the time of its introduction, although few would retrospectively now challenge the requirement to wear a safety helmet where there is a risk of falling objects, etc., as the benefits are clear.

Thinking back to my experience of construction site welfare in my earliest career, most projects I worked on had no welfare. Breaks were taken in the back of your van and public toilets, or other alfresco arrangements were used to relieve yourself. Where some form of welfare did exist, the quality and upkeep of it was poor by todays standards.

I worked with a bricklaying contractor on a project on the outskirts of London where a hotel was being constructed. The only welfare on site was a single 16ft canteen with a gas stove, a kettle, tables and chairs, and a solitary portaloo, all of which was supplied by the groundwork’s contractor. I do not recall how many groundworkers there were on the project, but I know there were ten bricklayers and labourers, more than the welfare could cater for by today’s standards. Welfare maintenance was limited to the emptying of the portaloo once a week by the supplier.

It was winter so everything was covered in mud. A few of the groundworkers tools and cans of petrol were stored in the back of the canteen. As expected at the time, there was no soap, detergent, hand towels, cups, tea, coffee, toilet roll, etc. Worst of all and why it sticks in my mind, was the frying pan. At the 10 o’clock break, the groundworkers used to cook a fry up in this massive frying pan on the gas stove. Due to the lack of washing facilities the pan was reused daily without being cleaned, so it was black and charred and there remained a 5mm layer of congealed animal fat in the bottom of the pan. On a few occasions in heavy rain, the bricklayers used to stop work and take shelter in the canteen, the groundworkers didn’t, they just worked through it. If shelter was taken before 10 o’clock, on inspection of the countertop you could see the rat footprints in the frying pan fat, where they had been feasting on it through the night. The pan was always used and never cleaned!

I am glad to say that such situations are a thing of the distant past, and those coming into the construction industry today have an improved experience. Recognising the impact insufficient welfare can have, today’s welfare provision must be suitable to the workforce size, serve the needs of both male and female workers, be well equipped with food and drink receptacles, have supplies of hygiene and cleaning sundries, a supply of fresh drinking water and means of heating food and drink. It should provide storage for clothing, changing areas and heating for the drying of workwear, toilets and wash basins with hot and cold running water, hand health creams, sun protection and ample waste control. Cleanliness and maintenance of welfare must be daily, with replenishment of consumables, etc. to ensure the workforce have everything they need to their work and health.

However, this is not always the case in the pre-construction site works, such as ecology, archaeology, utility mapping, ground investigation, etc.

It is fair to say, depending on the size, scope and location of geotechnical and geoenvironmental projects, our industry has very varied levels of compliance to what should be expected with regard to welfare. While I haven’t seen any frying pans and rat footprints, I have seen inadequate on-site welfare or an absence of it entirely. There are several justifications put forward for such situations, however, none which have the welfare of those working on geotechnical and geoenvironmental projects at its core or which align to legislative requirements. Such justification could include; if welfare is provided, we would price ourselves out of the project, the client has pushed back against the cost of welfare, the project is not long enough to warrant having welfare, etc.

In reality, none of this reasoning will stand up to scrutiny by the enforcement authority, as legislation is clear, Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015 (CDM15), regulation 13.4. ‘the principal contractor must ensure that—(c) facilities that comply with the requirements of Schedule 2 are provided throughout the construction phase’, or within the Workplace (Health, Safety & Welfare) Regulations 1992, regulation 4.1. ‘Every employer shall ensure that every workplace, modification, extension or conversion which is under his control and where any of his employees works complies with any requirement of these Regulations…….’

There are weaknesses within the regulation and guidance, which on their casual reading seem to justify not having on site welfare. Within the CDM15 Schedule 2 (which the above quote relates to) it uses the term ‘….must be provided or made available at readily accessible places.’, and then there is the Provision of welfare facilities during construction work, HSE information sheet 59, which introduces the term ‘transient worker’ and states that ‘it may be appropriate to make arrangements to use facilities provided by the owner of existing premises, in which the work is being done, local public facilities or the facilities of local businesses’.

Considering ‘readily accessible places’ within CDM15. The statement is part of a much longer statement, which includes regulation 13.4.c, stating that ‘the principal contractor must ensure that facilities that comply with the requirements of Schedule 2 are provided throughout the construction phase’. The use of the phrase ‘….must be provided or made available at readily accessible places’ in this context allows the principal contractor to provide the welfare or arrange for a third party to provide it, as long as it is readily accessible. A 7th December 2022 prosecution of Adler and Allan Ltd, highlighted the expectation of the Health and Safety Executive for onsite welfare for brownfield / contaminated sites. However, the context of this case surrounded a worker contracting leptospirosis due to a lack of onsite hygiene facilities, so it should be noted that the contraction of leptospirosis is not linked to brownfield / contaminated sites, but any sites where rats (all year round) or cattle (spring and summer) are present.

HSE information sheet 59 was published 13 years ago, the corresponding construction regulations were the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007, which is referenced within the document on page 1. It goes on to state, ‘principal contractors should make sure that suitable welfare facilities are provided from the start and are maintained throughout the construction phase’ and that contractors ‘should ensure that there are adequate welfare facilities for workers under your control’. The document sets out in significant detail what welfare should consist of and contain.

However, this is ignored by those using it as an argument for using off site publicly accessible facilities, their focus instead turns to the section titled, ‘Use of alternative facilities for transient construction sites’. This states that ‘when undertaking short duration work (up to a week), it may be appropriate to make arrangements to use facilities provided by the owner of the premises in which the work is being undertaken, local public facilities or the facilities of local businesses.

What is not quoted by those using Information sheet 59 as an argument for using off site publicly accessible facilities, is that it then goes on to state ‘clear agreement should be made with the provider of the facilities; it should not be assumed that local commercial premises can be used without their agreement. In all cases the standards above (welfare standards detailed in document) must be provided or made available. Facilities must be readily accessible to the worksite, open at all relevant times, be at no cost to the workers, be of an acceptable standard in terms of cleanliness and have handwashing facilities’. The use of garages, supermarkets, public toilets, etc. whilst often providing basic toilet and hand washing facilities will struggle to meet all the remaining requirements, with issues such as cleanliness, chairs with back support, means of heating food and drink, changing rooms, free of charge to the worker, all preventing facilities being deemed suitable and sufficient before even looking at the definition of readily accessible.

To improve welfare across the industry, providing clients with an industry benchmark and contractors a level playing field to price against, the AGS has published new Welfare Safety Guidance which is available via the AGS Website. This guidance takes into consideration the vastness of scope, duration, workforce and environment variations which are present across the industry and puts into place a set of welfare standards to ensure the health and wellbeing of those working within the industry. The guidance addresses the application questions posed by conflicting regulations and guidance and provided the industry a simple, clear and concise framework to support the diversity of the workforce.

Our industry should be one that welcomes in early careers and supports existing staff by providing them with suitable and sufficient welfare, ensuring their wellbeing. The work the industry engages in is physical, dirty work, which is undertaken in all weather conditions, year-round. Those that deliver this work deserve the comforts that basic welfare delivers as a minimum.

Article provided by Jon Rayner – AECOM SH&E Director & AGS Safety Working Group Chair