Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
June 10, 2020

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Installers & COVID-19

Rethinking best practice? The impact of COVID-19 on installers, engineers and contractors

Hunter Seymour sets out to understand how the impact of COVID-19 may result in altered working practices for all those involved in contracting and installation services in the security and fire sector. Best practice advice from a number of sources from installers has also been compiled, to support those returning to work as lockdown is eased.

Recent events, it would be fair to say, have shown the UK Government’s COVID-19 pandemic emergency rules to have been often more honoured in the breach than in the observance. But, can such a harsh view be taken of our own security and fire industry as we come out of lockdown? In particular, can we claim a professional readiness to adopt a new best practice for contractors and installers under the constraints of the continuing COVID-19 crisis? To determine the effectiveness of such new workplace routines we have taken soundings of our leading professional bodies to assess positive changes and procedures to keep our industry safe. Critically, we intend to look at practical risk management of coronavirus-related issues at the workface for those engaged with installations, including the thorny problem of performing essential tasks in closer proximity than the prescribed new measure of two metres.


Riding the storm

There is a degree of heartening news from the ECA (Electrical Contractors’ Association, the leading engineering services organisation, which includes the Fire and Security Association), whose recent survey predicts that, despite significant reductions in sector turnover, 70% of respondents expect their businesses to remain viable in the face of the negative impact on contracts precipitated by COVID-19. However, for the medium and longer term, ECA – while far from complacent about the challenges ahead – is more bullish: “The sector’s unique position within both construction and facilities management has always demonstrated a resilient ability to bounce back” with the capability “to weather the economic storm of the coronavirus.”

The harsh realities of the COVID-19 downturn are also evident when analysing the combined Security & Alarms market (i.e. CCTV, satellites and security systems). After lockdown, security and alarm jobs saw a dramatic reduction. The decline continued and by mid-April, figures from Rated People estimated a 57% reduction was recorded compared with the beginning of March. However, more demand is now recorded to be moving in the right direction, with the jobs for the Security Systems and Alarms sector now down 41% on figures from the beginning of March.

Case-by-case common sense

It will be clear to concerned risk management that practical advice for the workface is bound to evolve from case-to-case arising from site conditions, yet any such modification of current COVID-19 guidelines must be seen to develop from “Working safely during coronavirus” guidance from BEIS (the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy).

As this guidance outlines, in an open-ended directive for contractors on site, “You must maintain social distancing in the workplace wherever possible.” This unspecific directive, therefore, by referring to possibilities, evidently takes account of case-by-case applications, yet may be compared with additional advice, in the same text, that states, “Where the social distancing measures (2m) cannot be applied: workers should work side by side, or facing away from each other, rather than face to face.”  Ask any installer, and these physical positions will be found impracticable in most circumstances where two pairs of hands are better than one.

Such conflicts of intention in official advice are baffling for contractors and installers actively in business. Seekers after practical pathways to efficient compliant work routines would be wiser to turn to their industry bodies for interpretation of sensible hygiene and distancing measures, such as ECA, BESA (Building Engineering Services Association), FIA (Fire Industry Association), SSAIB (Security Systems and Alarms Inspections Board) or BSIA (British Security Industry Association), to name but a few.

Yet, at the heart of this crisis, the headline message is that management should not lose sight of the key steps we should continue to take for keeping the virus at bay. The success of the UK Government’s COVID-19 strategy relies on this compliance. Isolation of those who have symptoms along with their household members could halve the rate of transmission, with test-and-contact-tracing, and continuing stringent hand-washing regimes to complete the official plan.

“New normal? Everyone believes work’s back to normal!” – Installer viewpoints

Before summarising key advice for contractors, it makes sense to listen to the word on the street to learn how hands-on installers are negotiating the ‘New Normal’.

Speaking to installers, where at the time of writing many found themselves engaged on emergency callouts or essential maintenance (IFSEC Global previously asked installers their views at the start of the lockdown), their experiences in many “case-by-case” situations, willing or unwilling, invariably run counter to best practice advised by the Government.

Installer A, for example, robustly points out that he has yet to see any work-teams (“Whoever! Whenever!”) observing social distancing or wearing appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). What’s more, given the reality of an installation’s completion requiring multiple refit services (electricians, carpenters, plasterers, plumbers, painters, etc.), workers are destined to be concentrated in close proximity in interior spaces, not healthy for such numbers. “New normal?’ Installer A grumbles. “Nothing’s changed. Everyone believes work’s back to normal!”

Installer B, by contrast, takes a more cautious line. He has a family business that he regards as one household, spanning two generations of father, uncle and brothers, comprising a team for fire alarm and security maintenance and installation. “We brief the customer before we arrive at their premises. First we make sure the customer has a complete understanding of the contract and the need for social distancing. We are never in the same room as the customer. All surfaces are sanitised before we leave. As a family, we monitor each other for symptoms. In all respects we regard ourselves as a responsible, virus-resistant, business.”

Installer C has a more forthright verdict on the current scene: “I have worked through this lockdown from the start. In the first few weeks, work slowed down to a trickle, and through this period people were very wary of callouts, especially the elderly, but, on those occasions I was called, social distancing was very present. I’ve recently worked on hotels and shop refits. There are multiple trades at these jobs and really social distancing can not be met securely as there are people moving all around you at all times. Clients want the job completed ASAP in preparation for re-opening. The reality is: if you said to them only this trade can work and this trade can’t, clients would seek someone else to finish the job sooner. As for wearing PPE, when you are in a stuffy loft or crawling under floorboards this is plainly not feasible. The PPE will become damaged, obstruct work or make it intolerable in the current hot season.”

These snapshots of working conditions under the risk of COVID-19 suggest a wide divide between best practice and good intentions. If they are indeed representative of the national picture, then our closer look at the national guidelines should help you plan to ensure your work can be undertaken safely . . . and realistically.

Best practice management checklist for installers

A wealth of in-depth information is available from professional bodies to mitigate risk. These include ECA and BESA’s joint guidance issued by their COVID-19 Expert Panel of Health and Safety Advisors, FIA Fire Sector guidance and advice from the BSIA.

The list that follows is a summary of these essential safety measures. It is not exhaustive:

  1. Consider who is essential for your installation or maintenance assignments; for example, support staff should work from home if at all possible.
  2. Therefore, plan for the minimum number of people needed to be on site to operate safely and effectively with “fixed teams or partnering” (so each person works with only a few others). A solution could be operating out of hours and/or introducing shift patterns.
  3. Where you are already using PPE in your work activity to protect against non-COVID-19 risks, you should continue to do so. Beyond this usage, the risk of COVID-19 needs to be managed through social distancing, hygiene and fixed teams or partnering, not through reliance on PPE. The prioritisation of good personal cleanliness and hand washing routines are strongly advised, together with respiratory hygiene (i.e. catch your cough or sneeze in a tissue, bin it, and wash your hands).
  4. Ensure there are appropriate places to wash hands regularly with soap and water for 20 seconds. Provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff and encourage sanitising routines. Allow regular breaks to wash hands. Regularly clean the hand washing facilities and toilets.
  5. Ensure spaces at the work site are optimised to allow social distancing, wherever possible. Where the social distancing measures cannot be applied, minimise the frequency and time workers are within 2m of each other. Minimise the number of workers involved in these tasks
  6. To reduce contagion, consider reducing job rotation and equipment rotation, for example, single tasks for the day.
  7. Similarly, consider reducing occupancy of vehicles used for on site travel and, when needed, social distancing measures should be followed within the vehicles. Good ventilation (i.e. keeping the windows open) and facing away from each other may help to reduce the risk of transmission. Share with the same individuals and with the minimum number of people at any one time.
  8. Regularly clean the vehicle using gloves and standard cleaning products, with particular emphasis on handles and other surfaces that may be touched during the journey. As for travel to work by other means, please note face masks will be compulsory on all public transport in England from June 15.
  9. Regularly clean common touch-points encountered during workdays: doors, buttons, handles, vehicle cabs, tools, equipment, etc.
  10. Also consider reducing the number of people in attendance at work site briefings and try to conduct them outdoors wherever possible with social distancing.
  11. All contractors should be advised on ways to access additional safety guidance to resist COVID-19, if they continue to be concerned.
  12. Risk management should be knowledgeable to ensure recognition of symptoms of COVID-19 and, in consequence, be clear on any relevant processes and procedures, including sickness reporting.
  13. Where loading and offloading arrangements of supplies will allow it, drivers should remain in their vehicles. Where drivers are required to exit their vehicle, they should wash or sanitise their hands before handling any materials.
  14. Consider arrangements for monitoring and supervision of compliance. Keep abreast of COVID-19 amendments. In this regard, review your communications with customers to instil confidence and explore the use of social channels to keep them fully up-to-date as to your safety routines when scheduling site visits.
  15. For home installations, you should advise householders to remain in a separate room while work is carried out. Prior arrangements should be made to avoid any face-to-face contact at arrival. You should carry out sanitising of all surfaces you’ve come in contact with before you leave the site.
  16. The measures necessary to minimise the risk of spread of infection rely on everyone in the industry taking responsibility for their actions and behaviours. Risk management should encourage an open and collaborative approach between all contractors so any issues can be openly discussed and addressed.

Protecting installers on the COVID-19 frontline

Emphatically, the gravest burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of risk management in these perilous times, specially at this critical period as the lockdown eases and electrical contractors and installers in the fire and security sector will again be entering new settings for installations, and at such sites will find themselves possibly vulnerable to exposure to contagion. Those on the frontline need our special concern.

This need for the greatest caution is recorded by Professional Electrician & Installer, whose monthly stories reflect the current concerns of those working at the frontline: “The guys and gals risking their own health to help hospitals, establishments and homeowners with emergency maintenance . . . cruelly, electrics don’t stop cutting out simply because of an unprecedented pandemic. Resilience to adversity is built in to those operating at the sharp end of the industry and, whilst it may be facing its greatest ever test, we have no doubt it will not be found wanting when called upon to get its sanitised hands properly dirty once again,” highlights Richard Bowler, Editor of Professional Electrician & Installer.

The guidance for the frontline is to the point: “The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously caused significant challenges for both the commercial and domestic sectors of the electrical industry. Our advice to readers throughout has been to follow the recommended safe distancing and safety-related guidelines as best as possible if they are indeed returning to work. Again, the moral dilemma that those working in the domestic sector face comes from the fact we’re still not legally allowed to have loved ones and family from different households into our properties, yet a trades professional can do so in certain circumstances.

“As such, many of our readers working solely in that sector have yet to return to work. The commercial sector, and particularly contract jobs that have required electrical professionals to return to work (whether they like it or not) is a different animal, and there is no reason that with proper planning and administration, trades cannot work in a safe-distanced environment. They should, however, insist that all of the correct PPE and equipment is provided before returning to site in any capacity.”

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