Construction during lockdown: 'I feel like I have no choice'

Construction workers across Scotland have told of their “nightmare” working on sites where coronavirus mitigation methods were dropped days after the last lockdown ended.

The construction sector was shut down during the lockdown in March.
The construction sector was shut down during the lockdown in March.

A Scotland on Sunday investigation found building sites where colleagues are being instructed to continue to work despite having come in contact with someone who has tested positive and where staff claim “covid safe” practices such as mask wearing and social distancing are non-existent - except on days when inspectors are on site.

The investigation can reveal that on some Scottish building sites:

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Up to 15 staff at a time are packed into small ‘drying rooms’ to change clothing before starting work;

Limits on the number of people eating lunch together in canteens are regularly breached;

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Construction workers are only wearing masks when inspectors are on site;

Up to 40 people are sharing a single toilet;

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Workers are car sharing with up to four other people to travel across Scotland to work on construction projects;

Some staff are forced to share a van and work closely with colleagues on jobs;

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New Covid cases are being reported every week.

Construction is one of few industries which has been allowed to continue during the current lockdown restrictions.

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However, workers have claimed that much of the work they are doing is non-essential - such as housebuilding - and have called for the industry to be halted while cases are high.

Unions have backed their calls, warning that workers’ health is being put at risk.

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It had been expected that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon may have considered further tightening of rules in the construction sector this week - however, her briefing on Wednesday covered only click and collect retail, takeaway services and tradespeople working inside private homes.

One construction worker based across various sites in Edinburgh said some of her colleagues were still working despite being instructed by NHS Scotland to isolate after coming into contact with a positive case.

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Many contractors are entitled only to Statutory Sick Pay of £80 a week if they need to isolate.

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Nicola Sturgeon can't rule out 'additional' lockdown restrictions
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She said: “I’m yet to see a Covid safe site that the government says we have. No social distancing, no masks or anything. We don’t get paid if we are off sick, so it leaves people stuck between a rock and a hard place. I personally would isolate if I came into contact with someone who had the virus, however, I know some people wouldn’t do this as it means no pay.

“We get told to put masks on only on days where health and safety attend a site. There is no change to my work life than before there was a virus. I feel that money is worth more than my health at the moment.”

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A construction worker on a site for new build housing in the Highlands said that a co-worker had been told he was a close contact of another colleague who had tested positive - but was instructed to keep working.

He said: “We have one toilet for around 40 people, any mitigations are mostly for show and are impractical. They still expect the job to get done, I’m constantly coming into contact with others.

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“I think a lot of the guys are uncomfortable, but the culture is quite macho, ‘don’t make a fuss, get on with it’.”

A joiner who works in house building in Edinburgh said measures brought in after the last lockdown ended had been abandoned within days.

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He said: “Measures got dropped after a couple days of being back on site. No-one wears a mask now, they just have a snood around their neck. There is supposed to be a maximum of two people to one plot, but bosses come strolling in whenever they feel like it with no masks. Segregated walkways are no longer existent and there is supposed to be four people in a canteen, but we had six today. In the mornings, the drying room, where people get into work boots, has at least 15 people in at one time.”

He added: “I feel like I have no choice, but it’s very worrying with cases rising. I have a workmate with a child who is highly vulnerable who has to come to work because he simply cannot afford to be off and he was refused furlough. We work on new build houses, is that essential? It surely can’t be. But if it is essential, then surely we are all entitled to the vaccine right away?”

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One woman, whose partner works as a scaffolder, said she was increasingly fearful for the family’s health.

She said: “Workers don’t get sick pay, therefore refuse to take time off if unwell. There was a case where my partner was on a site with a squad and at the end of their shift a colleague said he was living with his mum who had tested positive. He should be self isolating but can’t afford not to have any income for two weeks and ultimately decided against it.

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“It’s a nightmare, because sites are saying they are Covid safe but that’s only when health and safety officers are visiting. It would only take one unannounced visit by health and safety officers to see the real extent of potential spread as they wouldn’t have time to tell everyone to wear a mask and follow the guidance provided by the government.”

A worker on a large project in Glasgow, where over 200 people are based each day, said that the site had seen cases every week since November.

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He said: “The principal contractor has put very good measures in place with different start, break and finish times. There are socially distanced welfare areas and that is all positive. But there is nothing more they can do because they cannot watch everyone and unfortunately most people will not take the threat seriously.

“It is over 200 people sharing facilities, common touch points, tools, machines and travelling from all over the UK to the site. I met two people from Manchester on Monday who travelled up for the week, three more from London who came up for three days today. All sharing vans, staying in hotels and moving around sites on a daily or weekly basis.”

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He added: “The feeling on site is that the government is lying to themselves and everyone else when it is clear having sites and factories open are a big reason for the spread. Some have elderly parents at home, partners that work in care homes and hospitals and this is putting a lot of people at risk. Anyone can see it and that’s the frustrating thing.

“It’s the first time I can genuinely say the Scottish government has knowingly put money before lives.”

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Scottish Government housing minister Kevin Stewart said: “We have been able to keep construction and manufacturing sites open in level 4 by developing guidance with sectoral bodies and unions to ensure workplaces are as safe as possible. It is vital that all workplaces continue to follow this guidance, planning for the minimum number of people needed on site to operate safely and effectively. Employers must carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment, paying particular attention to workers who are disproportionately at risk due to underlying health conditions or the role they carry out, and only those who cannot do their job from home should be asked to go to the workplace.

“Should anyone have concerns about their workplace or a workplace they should inform their Local Authority and the HSE. A single point of contact has also been established for trade union representatives to explain how all COVID-19 workplace guidance is being implemented.”

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Unite’s regional coordinating officer, Steve Dillon, said: “Construction workers are crisscrossing the country, and even across the UK, on a daily basis. Unite has been inundated with concerns from construction workers that Covid measures on site are not adequate some with over 300 workers on them. Thousands of construction workers were furloughed during the first lockdown and construction was phased back in a managed step by step process. The present situation is very different from last April in that the sector is practically operating at 100 per cent despite the new strain of the virus being far more transmissible.”

He added: “The Scottish Government must instruct all non-essential works to close and only permit emergency repairs in a domestic setting. Critically, they must ensure all construction workers have access to income protection and financial support regardless of their employment status.”

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The worker:

One man who contacted Scotland on Sunday works on the St James Centre development in Edinburgh, where he says it is estimated that around 1,000 people work on site.

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He said: “Social distancing is non-existent on this site. There are around 12 or 13 guys huddled round talking, with no mask whatsoever. This is consistent throughout the whole site. We don’t stay in our own work bubbles, so could potentially be in close contact with hundreds of different households every day. There is very minimal hand sanitising points on site as well and poor one way systems in place that nobody follows.

“We were told to keep our distance and wear a mask all day. As of Monday, if you were caught, you would be red carded and off site. Yet, there is nobody enforcing these rules and still people not distancing, wearing masks, and large groups together pretty much on top of each other.”

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The manager:

A site manager from Glasgow said he struggled to enforce social distancing measures among his staff.

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He said: “It depends on the person, normally people will do as they are told, but as soon as you turn your back they will be doing as they please again. Two managers simply cannot enforce over 100 people to follow the rules at the one time, it is impossible.

“There is no social distancing, no face masks being worn, car sharing with more than four people. People from all over the country are coming to the one site and us as management have no way to control and enforce the rules that are necessary to keep everyone safe.”

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He added: “I live at home with my parents, the last thing I want to be doing is taking it home to my mum, who is shielding. However, if I do not go to work, I will be either replaced or my progression will be altered.”

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