The Impact of COVID-19 - Time to Reassess
Updated: Feb 4
The lockdown and subsequent shut down of construction sites in Scotland in Spring 2020 had a dramatic impact on the Site Investigation and Remediation industry. But despite the huge changes to living and working practices that were necessary, many ERS staff members were still able to take some positives from an otherwise dreadful year.
One of the first measures that was introduced at ERS in March 2020 was working from home to reduce the transmission risk from office working. ERS had already adopted cloud technology before the pandemic and most staff had laptops which were capable of connecting to the network remotely. Site staff were already used to remote access and hotdesking, so technologically at least we were well placed to make the switch.
Despite the sudden upheaval, ERS staff rose to the challenges of this New Normal. Most were able to adapt quickly to working from home, and client/team meetings were still possible over remote video-conferencing software instead of face-to-face.
“From the feedback that we gathered, it seems to have been a positive experience for most staff and something they would be keen to integrate more into our way of working, even past the pandemic,” says HR Manager Sarah.
However, the switch to home working meant one person’s workload increased significantly. Technical Specialist and IT wizard Nik suddenly found himself on the front line as staff turned to him for help with new or unfamiliar software and equipment. “We needed to get everyone capable of working from home,” he explains.
Typical issues included login difficulties from home due to enhanced security features; access and equipment problems on Teams meetings and the need for remote sessions to resolve problems that would normally be dealt within seconds in the office.
The Long Shut Down
A few weeks later on the 6th of April, the Scottish Government made the decision to shut down construction sites, effectively pushing the pause button on ERS projects north of the border, except for projects which were deemed essential, for instance where active remediation schemes were already operating and invasive weeds projects, as of course lockdown did not mean that plants stopped growing and missed treatments would lead to greater infestations and longer eradication timescales.
With the pandemic tightening its grip and no reopening of site work for the foreseeable future, ERS made the difficult decision to furlough many staff members for a while. As ERS is an employee-owned company, this decision was subject to consultation with all staff members.
With the schools also closed, this may have come as welcome news to parents who found themselves juggling work and teaching duties, but others inevitably found it much more difficult to replace the bustle and comradery of working life.
Aware of the impact this might have on some employees’ mental health, team leaders regularly checked in on their team members, and furloughed staff were encouraged to use the time to do training courses, webinars and other personal development work. Others used the time to reconnect with their communities through voluntary work, helping others in need during the crisis.
And When Lockdown Finally Ended….?
Not many people realised how long the lockdown was going to be. “When I left the office at lunchtime on the 25th March 2020 I didn’t think it would be nearly 3 months until I returned to work!” Procurement Administrator, Steph admits. “On returning in June there were some challenges and I spent a lot of time putting up [social distancing] posters and stickers on floor.”
As well as the new social distancing visual guides, other COVID H&S improvements included hand sanitiser dispensers, new toilet entrance locks and hand towel dispensers.
For staff who worked on site and in supporting roles, work seemed to pick up quickly once construction work was allowed to re-commence. Whilst that did cause some equipment resourcing and staffing issues (as a relatively small company, a couple of positive tests forcing site staff to self-isolate could affect a project quite considerably, leading to project managers also getting hands-on to help out), the main changes to site work in the New Normal were the extra COVID related H&S requirements – new risk assessments that included COVID mitigation measures, on-site social distancing measures, no sharing of vehicles, avoiding direct contact and regular decontamination of surfaces. But again, staff adapted pretty quickly to the new working practices. The only real issue appeared to be the sourcing of personal protective equipment (PPE). Not only were items like masks and gloves hard to get hold of, the prices had also increased dramatically – well over double in some instances!
So it wasn’t all Doom and Gloom?
“I think there has been some real positives,” HR Manager Sarah points out. “The pandemic has forced us into an increase in remote and flexible working and allowed us to review the effectiveness of this across the organisation as a whole.”
And outside the office, the extra time to think about how to progress with projects that were temporarily on hold also seems to have brought about some positive, more sustainable approaches from our clients.
“It gave us time to re-assess the most appropriate remediation strategy for a number of projects,” says Managing Director Andrew. “Instead of the usual urgency to complete site remediation as quickly as possible, leading to more off-site disposal than we would like, our clients found themselves with breathing space to explore alternative soil treatment techniques. These may take longer but are often more sustainable and cost effective.”
This upturn in interest in longer term or more complex remediation strategies meant in 2020, ERS’s Mobile Plant License was deployed for:
· Ex-situ bioremediation
· In-situ chemical reduction and enhanced reductive dechlorination
· Ex-situ chemical oxidation
· In-situ thermal desorption
· Heat enhanced NAPL recovery
· Multi-Phase vacuum extraction
· A variety of pump and treat systems
“I think everyone has shown their willingness to be flexible and adaptable this year and to collaborate with each other in new ways,” Sarah says. “It has been hard for everyone to adapt, there have been a lot of different demands on people this year, and I think it has been navigated admirably.”
That said, we’re all looking forward to seeing an end to the pandemic in 2021 and fresh opportunities to work with new and existing clients, investigating and remediating their contaminated sites across the UK.