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Author of Refurbishment Projects: Health and Safety Management, David Oloke, examines sustainable health and safety management practices to support the effective design and implementation of building alteration and refurbishment during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

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How can we safely alter and refurbish essential buildings during crises?
  • Updated: 15 Jun 2020
  • Author: David Oloke, Civil/ Structural Engineering Consultant and Academic

The alteration and refurbishment of buildings has taken up about 70% of UK construction work in the last few years. It is, thus, pertinent to stress that despite ‘lockdowns’ arising due to disruptive events such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, a reasonable amount of refurbishment work will still need to be undertaken. In addition, businesses will need to adapt to survive in such times. For example, the UK Government recently published a Procurement Policy Note on the effects of COVID-19 on public procurement, setting out situations where in times of genuine urgency, rules for public procurement are relaxed. However, where such urgency does not exist, procurement must still follow public contracts regulation. This policy basically ensures that all necessary projects proceed as reasonably as possible and as intended.

At times, even the need to alter and refurbish buildings in a relatively short time and in a sustainable fashion (so as to help provide for necessary emergency shelter or treatment facilities) forms the basis for projects to be commissioned. Recent examples all over the world due to COVID-19 show how the industry needed to respond to the pandemic by building new facilities (or more commonly) temporarily convert existing facilities to treatment centres. These projects have stricter time and quality performance targets (within budgetary constraints) when compared to ‘normal’ projects. A sustainable project could also imply the need to possibly reconvert the facility after the pandemic event. These are all features that require careful considerations for the safe delivery of such projects.

To ensure that these projects meet the objectives, design matters and on-site issues need to be planned appropriately. In other words, traditional risk assessment templates and method statements should be drawn up to adequately consider the unique features of the proposed projects in the prevailing contexts. Design should, therefore, consider the use of off-site manufactured elements, modular components, and prefabricated solutions as much as possible. These will imply not only faster lead in times but also quicker on-site delivery. Also, where (as is the case with most refurbishment projects) there will be a need to physically inspect and appraise the project in order to complete the demolition plan and design proposal, this has to be specially arranged so that all official health guidance is followed properly. The feasibility of all options should be evaluated in each case.

The construction phase health and safety issues should also be evaluated adequately. In a pandemic, for example, considering that the virus is usually transmitted from person to person, work methods proposed must consider the exposure of workers in the light of recommended health guidelines as much as possible. Typically, proposed work activity must also consider all matters relating to dust, noise, vibration, and other health issues in the context of the prevailing environmental conditions. Similarly, the typical safety issues relating to work at heights, manual handling, excavations, transportation and similar will need to be evaluated in the context of the pandemic or unusual event.

On-site co-ordination and information flow management, as required under CDM 2015 (or similar legislation), should also be maintained using technology-assisted means as much as possible. Building Information Modelling (BIM) will be immensely helpful in this respect, but mobile devices and applicable collaboration Apps can also be used to exchange pertinent safety information. This will help in minimising the risks of human physical interphase/contact and, thus, the spread of the pandemic vectors. All method statements of workflow on the site must address these matters adequately.

It is important to stress that the best prevention strategy is planning and prioritising. Where on-site aspects of projects can be postponed, then this should be the first option. However, where it is considered necessary or mandatory that refurbishment projects should proceed, the above measures will need to be systematically considered in both design and construction/implementation phases of the project.

To find out more about issues relating to refurbishment projects, please refer to Refurbishment Projects: Health and Safety Management, available in print and as an eBook.