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Mental Health Awareness Week should be cancelled!

By Bill Hill, CEO of the Lighthouse Club

THE year we cancel Mental Health Awareness Week will be because the mental health of our workforce is treated as significantly and comes as naturally as ensuring their physical safety. It will come at a time when everyone in our industry is aware of the importance of good mental wellbeing, every operation has a mental health policy and the suicide rate in construction has been significantly reduced.

However, according to the recent CIOB survey, taken before the Covid-19 outbreak, we have a long way to go and the day we cancel Mental Health Awareness Week will not be anytime soon.

We need more companies to engage, accelerate and amplify our efforts to improve our workforce wellbeing. By following a simple five step guideline,  any company can embrace the change without considerable financial outlay.

  • Step 1: Commitment.  Management agree policy and sign up to treating mental health as a priority in their operation
  • Step 2: Access to an EAP. Everyone in the operation including all onsite subcontractors should have access to an Employee Assistance Programme. If  no scheme is available,  use our charity’s free  Construction Industry Helpline and supporting App.
  • Step 3: Start the conversation. Deliver regular on-site wellbeing toolbox talks to get people talking together
  • Step 4: Awareness. All people managers should attend an online or on-site Mental Health Awareness course.
  • Step 5: On Site Mental Health First Aiders. Every operation should have an onsite Mental Health First Aider in the same ratio as physical first aiders

Following this simple five step incurs little cost,  makes construction a more attractive place to work for the next generation and could ultimately save lives.  

However, if all else fails try adopting these 3 life principles:

  1. Always ask twice. Make eye contact, you don’t always get the true answer first time around 
  2. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.  Listen and don’t judge, easier said than done! And be the last to talk.
  3. Always be kind, there is no reason to be unkind even if you need to deliver a tough message it can be done in a humane way.

These three life principles are easy to say and difficult to follow, but if we did, the world would be a better place and Mental Health Awareness Week would be a thing of the past.

Find out more about the 5 Step guideline

New support tools for Checkatrade members through COVID crisis.

Checkatrade, one of the UK’s leading directories of recommended, vetted and monitored trade experts, has announced a number of new initiatives designed to support its trade members during this unprecedented period of lockdown.

It has promoted a new video calling function on its website - a first within the online trade directory market - enabling tradespeople and potential clients to more easily ‘meet’, discuss jobs and obtain quotes from the comfort of their own homes. This means jobs can be safely scoped in advance or booked-in ready for when restrictions are lifted.

Checkatrade has also partnered with Claritas Tax, an accountancy firm specialising in tax advisory and compliance services, to offer trade members practical advice on accessing the financial support available at this time. The guidance, available on the Checkatrade blog, covers three main areas; help for the self-employed, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and VAT deferment.

Checkatrade is offering its members financial support and new affiliate packages for the duration of lockdown to allow them to maintain or build their online profile at a fraction of the usual cost.

Mike Fairman, CEO at Checkatrade, said: “Our members work across a broad spectrum of industries. For some it’s business as usual, for others their pipeline of work has collapsed overnight, leading to huge financial uncertainty and untold stress.

"We’re committed to doing all we can to support them. With our members ranging from sole traders through to limited companies, it’s important that everyone has access to the best tools and sound advice so that risks are minimised and opportunities maximised.”

British Safety Council slams PM's 'reckless' message

THE British Safety Council has today demanded that no worker be forced back to their workplace until it has been made safe.

The Government has indicated that more people should be going to work and last night the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said: “You should go to work if you can’t work from home and to ensure you are safe at work we have been working to establish new guidance for employers to make workplaces COVID-secure”.

The British Safety Council is providing support to employers with workers on the front line, including healthcare workers and essential workers in retail, manufacturing and construction. As well as providing direct support through the lockdown, the British Safety Council is developing new services to help organisations adapt as lock down restrictions are eased.

Speaking today from his home Mike Robinson, chief executive of the British Safety Council, said: “Yesterday’s announcement compounded a week of mixed messages that will put workers at risk – it is reckless to urge people back to work before clear guidance has been published and before employers have put in place plans to make workplaces safe.

"Instead of a phased plan, allowing managers to understand and interpret guidance, anxious workers are going to be piling back on to public transport without any clear rules and guidance. We are working to help our members and customers to carry out proper risk assessments, but the confusing messages from government are not helping anyone.

“We will look in detail at the guidance when available, and we are working closely with members to ensure that employers carry out their duty to ensure workers are safe, whether that’s at home, travelling to and from work and in their place of work. I know that most people are keen to get back to work and back to some normality, but if we follow this chaotic approach, we risk undermining all the hard work achieved through the lock down.

"In a national emergency there is a strong instinct to give the government the benefit of the doubt – but they need to sort this mess out. When the guidance is published it must put the safety of workers front and centre and end the current confusion.”

Construction workers 'should be actively encouraged to go to work', says PM

LAST night (Sunday 10 May), the Prime Minister delivered a speech updating the UK on the government's position on the lockdown in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

He announced that those who are not able to work from home, explicitly citing those in the construction sector as an example, 'should be actively encouraged to go to work' as long as it was safe and the workers were able to avoid public transport.

Durnig the address, the Prime Minister also announced that the Government would look into re-opening schools for children of certain age groups from June, and that from Wednesday the rules of only being allowed outside for one hour of exercise per day were to be relaxed from this Wednesday.

Under previous guidance, UK construction companies have not been required to close so far. Yet the Prime Minister's speech is the most high-profile endorsement of such businesses returning to work so far.

However, the Prime Minister has come under fire for the address, with some critics calling the guidance 'vague'.

The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all distanced themselves from Boris Johnson's new 'Stay Alert' message, insisting 'Stay At Home' should be the overriding message to the public.

In Scotland, where non-essential construction work remains banned, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said after the Prime Minister's address: “I think it is incumbent on him to stress that when he is talking about lifting these restrictions […] he is talking for England.”

More details of the Government's lockdown recovery plan are expected when the government releases guidance later today.

Government to announce plans to get Britain back to work

THE Prime Minister Boris Johnson blew the whistle on the UK returning to work last night as he announced he will set out a plan for reopening schools and restarting the economy next week.

A confirmed date for lifting the lockdown has yet to be set, but speculation is rife that a slow restart will begin very soon.

The Prime Minister stressed that, even though the UK is ‘past the peak’, a slow return to normality would be necessary so that we do not ‘risk a second spike’.

The construction industry was been classified as key workers, and so were not obliged to completely close as long as they were able to meet the HSE’s social distancing criteria. But with supply lines compromised and travel disrupted, many sites doing non-essential work were closed in line with the lockdown policy.

The Government is continuing to work closely with unions and business group to discuss guidelines for working as the lockdown is lifted.

Trade bodies monitor construction supplies to iron out demand and production

THE Builders Merchants Federation (BMF) is working with the Construction Products Association (CPA) to monitor the manufacturing and distribution of their respective members in order to meet the needs of housebuilders, contractors and SME builders as sites re-open.

They are heading up the Product Availability Group, set-up by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), which is co-ordinating the industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The BMF is gaining information from across its membership to identify items likely to be in short supply.  Early shortfalls in plaster and plasterboard supply were the first to be flagged up under the monitoring system, and steps are being taken to resolve that shortfall.

John Newcomb, chief executive of the BMF, said: “The Product Availability Group, which includes Tier 1 contractors, large and SME housebuilders along with merchants and manufacturers, is meeting every two weeks to keep a watching brief on the situation across the entire construction industry supply chain.

“Nothing like this has happened before and the work we are doing is unprecedented. The spirit of collaboration forged within the CLC makes it possible for the whole materials chain to work together to resolve any challenges in a proactive way and ensure demand is met across the construction sector.”

Peter Caplehorn, CPA chief executive, said: “The CPA has been closely monitoring the operational status of its members, who are looking for sustainable demand for their products before starting to phase in more factory production, whilst at the same time ensuring the health and well-being of their workforce.

“With the BMF, we are discussing with Government and the wider industry the need to encourage builders and merchants to safely re-open more sites and branches, in addition to continuing support for ‘essential’ activity such as key NHS and infrastructure projects, repair and maintenance.”

The BMF’s five larges merchant members, along with five of the CPA’s largest manufacturing members are part of the Product Availability Group.

Government announces loan scheme for small businesses

THE Chancellor has announced a simple micro loan scheme with a 100% Government-backed guarantee for small businesses.

The new Bounce Back Loans scheme will offer to up £50,000 to small businesses recovering in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and should reach businesses withni days of applying through the short online application.

"Our smallest businesses are the backbone of our economy and play a vital role in their communities," said Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak. "This new rapid loan scheme will help ensure they get the finance they need quickly to help survive this crisis.

"This is in addition to business grants, tax deferrals, and the job retention scheme, which are already helping to support hundreds of thousands of small businesses."

The annonucement shows that he has listened to the concerns of local builders who have struggled to access affordable finance during the lockdown, said the Federation of Master Builders (FMB). However, with many small to medium-sized (SME) construction sites still shut, an SME Support Fund that issues grants, instead of loans, is needed to help builders get back to business once lockdown ends.

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB, said: “The Chancellor has listened to local builders’ concerns about cashflow, raised by the FMB, and brought forward a simple loan scheme for viable firms. This marks a positive step when just 4% of builders were able to acquire credit through previous schemes.”

“Cashflow is currently builders’ biggest headache because many construction sites remain shut. The combined challenges of accessing scarce materials, working safely in a client’s home, and protecting the health of the construction workforce, has left many firms unable to continue bringing income in. An SME Support Fund in England, and Northern Ireland, similar to the ones in Scotland and Wales, is needed to issue grants and ensure that these firms can hit the ground running post-lockdown.

"Builders, and the construction industry, will thrive if they are able to reinvest their profits back into the economy, rather than paying back a loan.”

Builders Merchants report lacklustre February before Covid-19

FIGURES for February 2020 just released in the BMF’s Builders Merchants Building Index (BMBI) point to a lacklustre month for sales through UK builders’ merchants.

February trading is unlikely to have been much affected by the emerging Coronavirus pandemic, pre-dating social distancing, which started on 19 March, and the lockdown measures which took effect on 24 March.

Total Builders Merchants sales during the month were down -1.3% compared with February 2019.  Sales in three categories were weaker including the two largest, Heavy Building Materials (-1.9%) and Timber & Joinery Products (-6.9%). Tools was also weaker at -4.0%.  Among the categories to show year on year growth, there was strong demand for Workwear & Safetywear (+30.8%) driven by higher demand for protective equipment including masks, googles and gloves.  Landscaping sold 7.4% more and Kitchens & Bathrooms grew by 3.5%.

Sales in February were 2.2% higher than in January 2020, despite having two less trading days, and February being one of the wettest on record.

Sales in the three months December 2019 to February 2020 were -1.2% lower than in the same period a year earlier.  Nine categories improved, including Workwear & Safetywear (+14.1%) and Landscaping (+5.3%).  However Timber & Joinery Products (-6%) and Tools (-4.8%) were weaker.

Overall the 12 months March 2019 to February 202 were down 0.9% on the same period a year earlier, with one less trading day.  Average sales per day (which takes trading day differences into account) in the last 12 months were down 0.5%.

BMF CEO John Newcomb commented:  “While we all know the figures for the first Quarter will be pretty abysmal when they are released next month, it is interesting to look back at the trend before Covid-19 took hold.  It is clear that the negative trend over the past three Quarters has continued into the first two months of 2020.

“Public confidence was already at a low after three years of Brexit uncertainty, and any possibility of a Brexit bounce following the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement in January was swiftly countered by widespread flooding hindering work in February. How long ago that all seems today.  We may have to wait until 2021 until we fully understand what the new normal will look like.”

Mental health and wellbeing in construction during COVID-19

By the Reverend Kevin Fear, CITB Health and Safety Policy Lead

SO far, there has been little in the way of ‘health and safety gone mad!’ responses to the Government’s actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The steps the Government has introduced are the results of health and safety risk assessments, and never has there been so much talk of PPE or a willingness to wear it.

But the Health and Safety at Work Act requires employers to ensure not only the health and safety of employees but also their wellbeing. The COVID-19 Government guidelines give no advice about how to ensure this, and more specifically how to promote positive mental health within the workforce during these difficult times.

On the other side, sites that follow the Government guidelines create environments where workers know their wellbeing is valued. Many of those on site work for small companies or may be self-employed. Right now, having work and financial security while feeling that everything is being done to provide adequate health protection will go some way to promote positive mental health.

Taking action

There is more that can be done. Having a clear plan and communicating this to workers; daily briefings to remind everyone of the protective measures; spotting when someone is not coping, and providing them with assistance; showing compassion and understanding... all these measures can help with workforce mental health and wellbeing.

In terms of day-to-day measures that everyone in construction can take to look after their mental health, these can vary with individually, but general points include staying active beyond simply the job on site, drinking sensibly and eating healthily.

There will be those who are also caring for children at home or looking after someone who is vulnerable – flexibility around this from supervisors, particularly during the current crisis with schools closed, can achieve a better work-life balance.

CITB has funded the training of thousands of construction industry workers in mental health first aid and the Fairness, Inclusion and Respect programme to help improve industry culture for a healthier workforce. But not everyone is comfortable talking about mental health at work, so the Lighthouse Club, a charity dedicated to the wellbeing of construction workers and their families, has created a helpline app which you can download here. If you are in an immediate crisis call the Construction Industry Helpline on 0345 605 1956 or the Samaritans free on 116 123.

Furloughing and mental health

While there are many who are self-employed, a considerable number of those directly employed will have been furloughed. They will be facing different challenges: here, managers and supervisors can make extra efforts to keep in touch, not to talk about work, but to just make sure that they are all right and that they know where they can get ongoing support, perhaps from HR or from employee assistance programmes.

I discussed some of these issues during an Association for Project Safety webinar on mental health in construction here.

Finally, in the time BC (before COVID-19), the construction industry already had high levels of poor mental health and suicide. I hope and pray, literally, that when we get to AD (after discharge) we will not be seeing evidence that the stress and anxiety of this time just proved too much for some.

Building Mental Health is also an industry resource that provides further tools for employers who wish to improve the mental health provision for their employees.

BMF publishes Branch Operating Guidelines during COVID-19

THE Builders Merchants Federation (BMF) has published Branch Operating Guidelines for the safe operation of builders’ merchants while Covid-19 restrictions continue. 

The 18-page document sets out guidelines and additional precautions to follow in the office, at trade counters, during customer and supplier deliveries, customer collection and tool hire. 

The Guidelines incorporate Public Health England (PHE) social distancing and hygiene procedures and have been prepared in consultation with merchants, Highways England and the Construction Leadership Council, which has itself published Site Operating Procedures for use on all building sites to facilitate safe working.  

Two-metre social distancing is absolute between merchant staff, customers and suppliers - and information is included on detailed cleaning routines and mandatory compliance to avoid transmission of the virus.

John Newcomb, BMF CEO said: “The Government has made it clear that merchants are a vital part of the construction supply chain and, if it is safe to do so, it is important they are able to support the construction industry as work continues and more sites reopen.

“We have worked with the industry to develop a new operating model to minimise the risk of virus transmission. The new model centres around trade customers using call and collect, click and collect and pre-arranged orders, with no public access into branches.

“The safety of merchant staff, suppliers and customers is paramount and every merchant must make the best decision for their individual business.  We hope these new Guidelines will show how risks can be managed if these safe systems of work are in place and remain effective until further notice.”

The BMF website includes a list showing the current operational status of merchant and supplier members during the crisis. The BMF has asked all members to advise them of any changes to ensure the list is accurate and up to date.

Visit the BMF website HERE


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