COVID-19: PREPARING FOR THE NEW NORMAL – ENSURING THE SURVIVAL OF OUR BUSINESS AND WORKFORCE

By Graham Clarke, Chairman ECA(SA) Contractual Committee

After the ECA’s first Zoom meeting, I realised that the information that electrical contractors are getting is sketchy and uncertain and that there’s a need to give contractors updates about what’s happening in their industry and more importantly, to let them know that the ECA is working hard in the background to get the industry back to normality.

As electrical contractors we’re mainly technical people who started a business and by default became entrepreneurs – as opposed to entrepreneurs who actively looked for a business to start or invest in and who allows the ‘numbers’ to direct his decisions.

As technical people we tend to be emotionally attached to our business and as much as our workforce drives us crazy at times, we have a connection with our workforce because they’ve actively helped us to get to where we are today.

However, with the COVID-19 situation and the disruption to our lives that we’ve accepted as normal, we’re going to have to put away the emotions and start making hard decisions – directed by the numbers – to ensure the survival of the business first and thereby ensure continued employment for the workforce.

This cannot be achieved in isolation and employees and associated representatives are going to have to change their mindset.

We all know that we’re operating in uncertain times and in a situation that’s out of our control – we’re all under a lot of stress and we don’t have access to our normal stress relievers …

I have found that some stress can be avoided when I follow the principle: “What you can’t control forget about, and what you can control, fix.”

There’s a lot of information out there so, to assist my fellow electrical contractors, I’ve separated ‘what we don’t know and can’t control’ and ‘what we do know and can control’.

To begin,  a full set of regulations was issued on 29 April which sets out all we can and can’t do

We know that according to regulations, the commercial construction sector will come back under Level 3 and that the residential construction sector will come back under Level 2. We don’t know when these levels will change; we don’t know how government defines the two different sectors; and we also don’t know where the contractors who do small domestic alterations and additions fit in to the greater scheme of things.

We do know that a consortium was set up specifically for the built environment – the Construction Covid-19 Rapid Response Task Team. This task  team put together documentation that highlighted the reasons why the construction industry as a whole should be allowed to work under level 4 and to strengthen this position, they included the health and safety that would be put in place to ensure the safety of the workforce, clients and public.

This task team should be congratulated for the initiative, for the hours they put in, for getting the documentation done quickly and that they actively engaged with the Minister before the introduction of the level 4 restrictions.

Although the task team was not as successful as originally expected, they’re still engaging with the minister regularly in an effort to get the construction industry back to work under level 4.

Health and Safety

We do know that going forward, the health and safety requirements are going to be stringent, so we can start preparing ourselves and our workplaces so that we’ll be ready when the time comes.

For guidance, we can begin by looking at the task team’s submission, which included safety measures that included:

  • Each worker issued with three overalls and three face masks and, where necessary, face shields.
  • Ample soap and water available on site and hand sanitiser stations installed where necessary.
  • Transport of the workforce to be in line with public transport requirements.
  • Workers to adhere to social distancing in the workplace.
  • Daily Safe Task Instructions (DSTIs) to be an integral part of the morning procedure before starting work.
  • Non-contact thermometers to screen employees at the start and end of every shift and that records are kept.
  • First aid respondents to be trained in the handling of potential Covid-19 cases, the creation of isolation areas if a worker fails the screening and other safety procedures.

From this we learn that we can start being proactive by sourcing face masks that comply with the published regulations procuring non-contact thermometers and stocking up on hand sanitiser in dispensers or alternatively, making up hand sanitisers according to instructions set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Transport

We need to start planning how we will transport workers to sites and between jobs. We know there won’t be a full complement of workers on the first day back at work so we also need to decide which teams we’re going to bring back and what work on the sites can be started and completed while adhering to social distancing.

Workflow

It appears that principal contractors are going to have to plan workflow meticulously and that there’s a strong possibility that shift work between trades will be introduced so we need to look at the implications of that within our own organisations

Contractual

With all the health and safety requirements likely to soon come our way, we need to look at the costs involved so when we do receive new health and safety specifications, we can ask for cost variation orders.

We may struggle to work at the same install rates that we tendered on and we’ll have to start considering our rates to accommodate a possible reduction in production, especially going forward with new tenders.

On the smaller contracts and repair jobs we know that we can provide services to ‘essential and permitted service providers’. The extent of the services we may provide are however, unclear and we need to use our integrity and moral obligation to society to make any determinations.

At the moment, it’s not so much a case of ‘working to the letter of the law’ but rather working within the framework around which the regulations were written.

In this regard, the ECA has submitted a letter to the Minister to define what the electrical industry does and to receive clarity on the regulations and the extent to which they affect registered electrical contractors and their employees.

Regulations have been gazetted for Health and Safety for small businesses These regulations give us a good idea about what will be expected on bigger sites.

Permits

There is a lot of talk about the CIPC certificate that is needed for proof of essential services. The gazette regulations make no mention of CIPC and only refer to having Form 2 as proof. This has been further clarified in regulations published on 12 May that state that Form 2 is the required certificate. 

The new normal

As employers and employees, we must come to terms with the fact that normal operating procedures will no longer be normal. There’s a new normal that’s coming into effect and we need to accept this and be part of it. We also must guard against being blinded by the problems and start actively working towards the solutions or be left in the wilderness of the old normal.

Please be assured that the ECA will continue providing updates as and when they become available and are checked for credibility. Please check our website for new information and look out for updates in our publications, Wired e-newsletter and SA Electrical Contractor magazine. To subscribe to these publications, click on the subscribe box on the homepage of the website.

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