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2020 / 2021 Edition

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How COVID-19 has reshaped the quarrying and aggregates sector so far

First published in the November 2020 issue of Quarry Management as Changing the Face of Safety

Iain Ormrod, general manager at Chepstow Plant International (CPI), discusses how COVID-19 has reshaped the quarrying and aggregates sector so far, explains CPI’s response to the crisis and looks at what other businesses could implement to futureproof themselves 

There is a lot to be said for tearing up the rulebook in the face of adversity. That is why, at CPI, we have decided not to specifically focus on ‘making things safer’ in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the world, but instead to ‘change the face of safety’. 

But what does this mean? Put simply, for any business to succeed within the current climate and highly competitive environment, they must maintain focus on key drivers and simply incorporate COVID-19 protocols into day-to-day operations. 

Those focusing purely on implementing COVID-19 measures and rectifying issues that these measures cause will not only lose sight of other health and safety risks – such as dust, vehicle/pedestrian collisions and driver fatigue – but also revenue, profit, and other areas which safeguard the future of the company. 

Of course, it is a challenge to adopt this approach towards COVID-19, but it also presents an opportunity to magnify focus on running a successful business in what is set to be a tough couple of years.

After all, COVID-19 has disrupted businesses across the globe, and with no recognized standard or ‘one size fits all’ approach for businesses adapting to safely comply with a COVID-19 world, we are all working hard to navigate our way through it.

The quarrying and aggregates sector has experienced its own challenges. Many businesses operating in this space can link their success to the construction industry. And with construction sites temporarily shutting down at the height of the pandemic, there is an obvious connection to the downturn our sector faces.

Thankfully, construction and quarrying is a cyclical business, and there tend to be seasonal trends throughout the year, every year. While it is inevitable that this year may result in a much lower trough than normal, HS2 and other stimulus packages that are due to kick-off could potentially reverse the industry’s declining output to pre-COVID levels. 

Indeed, for CPI, some sites have barely skipped a beat over the last few months, depending on locality or whether they were considered core or essential. In particular, our work in power stations and steelworks has continued as normal, albeit with more protocols in place. 

Years of heavy investment into health and safety measures has helped us to adapt more quickly than other businesses to the crisis – and our core ethos of striving towards a zero-risk working environment has helped us to remain buoyant. If anything, the pandemic is a prime example of why health and safety should always be high on the agenda for decision-makers in quarrying and aggregates – so that we can protect ourselves from the unexpected.  

In the last few years alone, CPI have introduced washable seat covers into vehicles, implemented the regular wiping down of cabs, and also safeguarded employees by introducing HEPA filters, which are commonly found on airplanes, into our fleet as standard. These have been found to provide extra air filtration for our operators, protecting them from dust, and recently, COVID-19. 

CPI are also one of the only companies in the UK and Europe to introduce haul assist technology across multiple sites. Daily granular data from live truck GPS positioning allows us to ensure drivers are using the same vehicles each day and understand who is taking breaks and conforming to site protocols. This software essentially acts as our own track-and-trace software, allowing us to have improved safety for all employees at such a critical time.

Clearly, senior management teams need to ask themselves some searching questions to continue operating sites safely at this time. Sometimes, this means rewriting the rule book. At CPI, we have introduced new safety measures, including adopting new cleaning protocols, implementing staggered shifts, maintaining operator separation and opening welfare units on site. We are also considering the weather, and how we will conduct daily briefings at a social distance once we enter the winter months.

Ironically, our mantra ‘we all stand together to stay safe together’ has been fast undermined by COVID-19. Historically, we would encourage our operators to take breaks away from machines, socialise more with one another and not spend days in isolation. We also invested a great deal of time and resources to build teams that work closely with each other and move towards the same objectives – ensuring that employees feel comfortable in reporting issues and working together for near-misses. However, given we are operating in an environment where we need to follow isolation protocols, that seems like a double-edged sword. 

It is one of many examples where the overwhelming influence of COVID-19 in the workplace has the potential to let other areas within businesses slip and regress – and there is a risk of overall safety taking a step backwards as companies try to navigate through this time. 

To ensure that our ‘business as usual’ approach to the crisis is sustainable, our COVID-19 measures are simple to remember and easy to enforce. We have made a conscious effort to cut through the noise, and now handwashing, operator isolation and even quarantine are as commonplace across the business as hi-vis jackets, steel toe caps and risk assessments. Undoubtedly, these measures will eventually become the norm, and businesses which adapt to them quickest can maintain focus on the actual task at hand.

One topic of conversation that continues to circle above those working in the sector is that of personal protective equipment (PPE). It is a conversation that has intensified during the pandemic, and also hit headlines due to shortages across the NHS. There is no doubt that businesses should have PPE in place for employees where appropriate. However, PPE is the lowest form of control, and if used alone will not solve the issue. There are varying ways to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. For instance, encouraging remote working or isolation, providing additional welfare services and enforcing on-site social distancing. PPE should work in tandem with these initiatives, and underpins the other important measures that we are putting in place. 

Of course, we know that complacency around safety can happen, so to cement best practice in the workplace during these times, we have launched a behavioural safety programme. This further intertwines the mind-set and approach for both safe working methods and COVID-19. It pushes us to create interdependency within our workforce through cultural and behavioural changes, ensuring everyone is looking out for one another.

The future of the quarrying and aggregates sector may currently appear uncertain, but companies can take steps to mitigate the situation. Businesses must find a way to quickly incorporate COVID-19, government guidelines and any new protocols into their day-to-day operations. As a sector, we cannot fight the pandemic, but we can learn to live and work alongside it. If businesses can find a way to do both successfully, it could very well be the difference between navigating a way through the pandemic, and being engulfed by it. 

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