The construction industry in the UK is facing some unprecedented challenges. Whilst that might not be surprising given the global health pandemic that has consumed the planet in recent months, for the UK’s construction industry COVID-19 is just one more burden to bear.
With a shrinking skills base, increasingly older workers and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Brexit, is it really any wonder that the construction industry is weathering out its worst slump in living memory?
Coronavirus is not going to disappear anytime soon and it is yet another invisible risk to front line workers in the building trade. Whilst the physical risks of the job are often abundantly clear, other personal and mental risks can be harder to spot. For example, suicide rates in the UK construction industry are an astonishing ten times higher than the national average, with the pressures of COVID-19 presenting additional dangers and further worsening the crisis.
In these somewhat tumultuous times, the UK government has reiterated on multiple occasions how keen they are to reignite the construction, housing and infrastructure industries as soon as practically possible. However, it would be nonsensical and indeed dangerous for the government to overlook the fact that workers in the construction industry are among those worst affected by the virus and all of its implications.
According to the Office of National Statistics, in a study of 2,500 deaths, builders were identified as most at risk of death from COVID-19, alongside taxi drivers, security guards and public transport drivers. Whilst the construction industry needs to get back on its feet sooner rather than later, that revival simply cannot come at the cost of so many lives.
Well accustomed to spearheading pioneering solutions under pressure, the construction industry is one of the most innovative employment sectors in the UK. With worker safety consistently paramount anyway, Coronavirus is further complicating matters by limiting levels of interaction between workers on site.
One of the key methods in tackling COVID-19 head on is through tracking technologies. In addition to this, Bluetooth device tags could also be making their way onto construction sites across the country, attached to ID badges or pieces of equipment. The hope being that these tags and trackers would be able to alert workers and trigger warnings when too many people were in one vicinity at a time, as well as monitoring worker interactions. Understanding these interactions could play a pivotal part in reducing the level of face to face contact actually required on each construction project.
A number of existing innovations in the construction sector could be advantageous in tackling COVID-19 and its associated risks. Off site and modular construction techniques could help to facilitate the deployment of prefabricated critical care facilities. This would, in turn, increase the capacity of the healthcare industry, which has been under immense additional pressures; one of the largest challenges the pandemic has inflicted upon the UK and many other countries thus far.
It is important to note that in order for something to be an innovative solution, it does not necessarily need to be newly invented. Often, research and developmental work focuses on progressing existing ideologies and procedures. Establishing ways for employees to interact with one another safely, or limiting their need to do so entirely could be highly beneficial long after the threat of COVID-19 dissipates.
New processes and procedures to ensure all surfaces and tools are safe for workers are key in minimizing the risks facing people in the construction sector on a daily basis. In addition to this, access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is also essential, raising additional challenges to be solved with provision and distribution.
“Innovative ideas always present some sort of risk, which is why it is vital to understand and utilise all of the support available,” says Sarah Collins, Head of R&D at RIFT Research & Development. “About more than just problem solving, financial incentives such as R&D tax credits work to encourage long term success, rather than merely surviving a business issue or challenge. The main objective is to make innovation less of a risk and more productive, with the hope that benefits of such actions will extend beyond any one sector or individual firm. Innovation can help everyone, and that is only becoming more apparent in the wake of COVID-19, which is why an emphasis on R&D financials in sectors like construction or engineering is more important now than ever.”