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COVID-19 [May] Update: Impact on construction projects

Engineers and construction workers need to stay up-to-date with the impact of COVID-19, both in terms of its effect on us as individuals and on our daily working life. If, like us, this directly affects you then read on to find out more.

Construction and engineering with the lowest index of the last 10 years

Last month we assessed the initial impact of COVID-19 on construction projects in the UK. As the global pandemic continues to spread, its impact scales up in parallel with it. The UK has recently moved up the rankings to become the 4th most prevalent country in terms of coronavirus cases worldwide. At the time of writing this article, more than 170,000 people have been infected with over 26,000 deaths. What’s even more alarming, the UK doesn’t seem to have reached the peak of infections yet. Whilst most European countries reached that peak a week or two ago, the number of daily cases in the UK doesn’t seem to be reducing.

The COVID-19 lockdown has had a severe impact on construction and engineering. The IHS Markit purchasing managers’ index for UK construction went down to 39.3 in March from 52.6 the previous month. This was the lowest index in the last 10 years. Engineering was hit even harder, going down to 36 in March. In general, a mark of less than 50 indicates a deteriorating activity in the sector.

COVID-19 puts 7 million construction jobs at risk

A recent study by McKinsey has found that nearly 60 million jobs are at risk in Europe – a 26% share of total employment. From those, almost 7 million jobs are within the building sector. Nearly 40% of all construction jobs are potentially at risk. They also found that almost 80% of jobs at risk are held by people without a university degree. This poses an even greater risk for construction workers, who typically have only primary or secondary studies. McKinsey also found that unemployed people are twice as likely to develop some sort of mental illness. This represents a major risk for the engineering and construction sectors. These industries have an elevated percentage of mental health issues and suicides, above the national average.

COVID-19 continues to stop work and construction projects

Another recent piece of research by the Resolution Foundation found that up to 11 million people could lose their jobs in the UK alone over the next three months. Luckily, it seems that the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been working so far. Thanks to the scheme, workers who are temporarily placed on furlough are getting paid 80% of their salary, up to £2,500 per month. This has prevented a catastrophic impact of COVID-19 in the economy, and particularly in the engineering and construction sectors. Resolution Foundation’s economist Daniel Tomlinson said:

‘The Job Retention Scheme is what stands between Britain experiencing high unemployment over the coming months and catastrophic Great Depression-era levels of long-term joblessness.’

Another recent study published by Constructionline in the UK reveals that 62% of over 4,000 suppliers in the construction sector have suspended operations. The top reasons for stopping work were Main Contractors closing the site and projects being put on hold. Only 13% of respondents said that their business had not been impacted by COVID-19, yet.

Although the Government’s guidance allows construction work to carry on as long as it’s safe, the Mayor of London has a different approach. The Mayor is clear that ‘construction sites should stop work unless the work is for safety purposes. If construction is taking place for safety purposes, it’s critical and it should carry on.’ This approach triggered Crossrail and TfL decisions to bring their projects to a close.

Latest technology to minimise the impact of COVID-19 in construction and engineering

Prime Minister Boris Johnson extended the lockdown until 7th May. Now the Government is looking at different options to ease the lockdown to let people go back to work. One of the suggestions on the table is to stagger the morning commute. This way, workers would start their shifts at 7 am, 10 am and 1 pm.

Some technology companies are seeing these challenging times as opportunities though. The CrewStrong technology, for example, developed by Foresight Intelligence and OEM Data Delivery will be able to track workers on site. This innovative solution will allow a safer, quicker return to work. The tool will use Bluetooth to record workers’ movements around the site. It can also have alarms for when a specific radius of social distancing is not complied with, or for when multitudes get together. The Bluetooth tag can be attached to any PPE or item, like a hard hat, badge or keys.

The impact of COVID-19 extends to gender pay gap in construction

Another potential negative impact of COVID-19 on engineering and construction is the step backwards on the gender pay gap. Because of the COVID-19 crisis and pressure on businesses, the Government suspended the need to report on 4th April about the organisations’ gender pay gap. Although this is an understandable step to reduce paperwork and pressure on already struggling businesses, it can create further negative impacts. Last year, the average median pay gap in construction was 24%. This was almost three times higher than the national average of 8.6%. Gender balance campaign WISE chief executive Helen Wollaston said:

‘We need to keep our eye on the ball in order to avoid losing ground that has been so hard-won in terms of giving women genuine equality of opportunity in the workplace.’

At GlobalCAD, the health and safety of our clients, readers and the wider community in the UK is our first priority. Because of this, we wanted to finish the article by providing some tools that can help you and your organisation during these challenging times. The UK Government is making COVID-19 testing available to essential workers and their families. This includes many workers within the utilities and transport sectors. If you find yourself in those sectors, you can access the Government’s guidance on how to get tested here. Also, if your organisation is going through financial difficulty, you may be eligible for some help from the Government. You can check if you can get financial support here.

How has COVID-19 impacted your job or organisation? Leave us a comment below.

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