COVID-19: Risks on plant start up and recommendations on hygiene control for on-site staff

This guidance provides advice on the safe reopening of plants and sites during the coronavirus pandemic.

Risks on plant start up

During the coronavirus pandemic many plants and sites were closed, however they are due to open again in the coming weeks.

There are generic safety risks linked to delayed start up which may be a consequence of a number of factors. These include:

  • Lack of knowledge of the shut-down status
  • Risks from leakage
  • Risks from sudden power restoration and others

For example, on 7 May 2020, a chemical plant in India was restarted after easing their country-wide lockdown. Restarting initiated an undetected leak from two tanks which released gas over a radius of approximately 3km. This gas affected nearby villages where eleven people died. Many more were admitted to hospital and people within the affected area had to be evacuated.

History provides other examples. The start up of Piper Alpha (1988) during maintenance, after shift change and with confusion in hand over documentation, was the catalyst for the subsequent disaster.

Likewise, the Camelford water pollution incident (1988) poisoned thousands when a lone driver deposited chemicals into the wrong tank. This shows what can happen when staff are unfamiliar with plant layout and procedures, and when knowledge is taken for granted.

Therefore, before any site is reopened, a safety check should be carried out to verify that nothing untoward has happened during the closure.

Environmental factors, such as rain and wind, can increase the risk of items working loose or areas being flooded. Heavy rain may, for example, have affected slope stability or saturated soils creating increased pressure on shoring, and power shut down may have affected de-watering. Confined spaces may have accumulated gas during the lockdown and are key areas to check and monitor.

The Temporary Works Forum (TWF) have produced an information sheet about temporary works and site closures1 which includes some cautionary advice about leaving tower cranes out of service for extended times. The TWF note includes a reference to the Institution’s own guidance on visiting site during the lockdown2 which will also be pertinent when sites reopen.

The TWF note also provides a link to the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) which has published Site Operating Procedures in light of the COVID outbreak3. It notes their concerns linked to the lack of qualified staff and social distancing. It highlights that emergency services will be under great pressure and therefore, more care is required to avoid calling on these services. The CLC has a number of other COVID-19 related guidance publications on their website.
 

Risks involved with reintroducing staff

Future working practices will differ, at least in the short to medium term. There needs to be increased attention on protection alongside recognition that basic hygiene and welfare demands will be changed by the needs of social distancing.

All these demands suggest that site management teams need to be active in advance of full opening to assess what needs to be done in accordance with government guidelines.

There will likely be a demand for increased PPE and managers should be alert to both potential procurement difficulties and to the risk of certification fraud. The HSE have already issued an alert over non-compliant face masks4.

It might well be the case that a new labour force is recruited to take over a site and consequently that force may be unfamiliar with the project layout and status. More emphasis on site induction may be merited.

Equally, it may be foreseen that there will be a decrease in team working and maybe more lone working. To ensure the safety of the individuals, management should ensure that all personnel are accounted for at the end of each shift.

Some sites may have been operated by a skeleton staff during the lockdown whilst others may have been deserted. Some sites may have initiated a safe lockdown procedure whereas others may have had none. It is quite likely that sites will have been closed down with many structural components in a state of partial completion.

In summary:

  • Sites should remain closed until proper procedures and safety equipment are in place
  • Sites should remain closed until a full inspection has been carried out of all items to ensure their temporary stability is adequate
  • Verify that all site plant is operable, safe to use and to restart
  • Ensure all staff are familiar with the project and its status: caution is especially required for new staff
  • As always, the HSE website offers advice


Precautions for staff on site start up

Once it has been verified that sites themselves are safe, risk reduction measures should be applied to returning staff. Recommendations are:

Initial

  • Only those who have no underlying health conditions and display no viral symptoms should come to the workplace
  • Anyone who has potentially been in contact with an infected person should not attend
  • This will apply for visits to all factories, construction sites and offices

On arrival

  • Temperature checks for all staff are advisable
  • When first entering premises, hosts or site managers should explain their policy on COVID-19 precautions and visitors should adhere to any instructions given
  • Returning work forces should be required to go through a check sheet to help them assess and manage risks to their own, as well as the public and clients’, health and safety
  • If working in offices of visited premises, workers should ask for desks that either allow social distancing of two metres or desks that are fitted with Perspex, or similar, screens
  • Records should be kept of all visitors (as per normal safety practice) but especially for the purposes of track and trace should any incident be recorded

Premises control

  • Create lines, barriers or lay placing signs to ensure social distancing. Defining one-way walking routes may be appropriate
  • Ensure that surfaces such as door handles and desk surfaces are frequently cleaned with antibacterial spray or wipes. Thorough cleaning precautions must be maintained in toilets
  • Ensure that there are adequate sanitary facilities available (for handwashing, sanitiser supply, etc)
  • Ensure the safe collection and disposal of any potentially contaminated waste (tissues, wipes, etc)
  • Welfare facilities (canteens, etc) should be controlled with dining times staggered to minimise congestion

Working practices

  • If tasks are to be performed that involve a group of employees, then as far as practicable, keep the number of such tasks, the people involved, and the time taken to a minimum
  • Wear PPE (masks, gloves, eye protectors) when in proximity to others involved in the task
  • Practice respiratory hygiene (sneezing or coughing into a tissue/handkerchief or sleeve then dispose of tissues responsibly) and then practice hand hygiene afterwards
  • Practice general hand hygiene at all times
  • Stagger start and finish times of those working on-site to minimise congestion at security barriers
  • Anyone who feels ill should report their condition to site security, inform their line management and leave the site


References:

1. TWf: TWf Information Sheet No 11. Implementing construction site closures: temporary works

2. IStructE: Points to consider before attending a site

3. Construction Leadership Council: Construction Sector - Site Operating Procedures Protecting Your Workforce During Coronavirus (Covid-19)

4. HSE Safety Alert issued: Use of face masks designated KN95 June 2020

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