Experts weighing pros, cons of shuttering construction sites

Muscat: Experts and contractors are cautioning that abrupt closure of construction sites as part of measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID19) could have unintended consequences – economic and public health-related – particularly if the expected outcomes are not carefully thought through and proactively managed.

The warning comes in the wake of a flood of calls, shared on various social media platforms, urging the authorities to shutter construction sites and keep blue-collar workers confined to their labour camps as part of pandemic countermeasures.

While an array of commercial, retail and leisure establishments have been ordered shut in recent weeks, alongside business, social, religious and other public events, the construction sector – which employs tens of thousands of workers – continues to be active.  Project sites in Muscat, Suhar, Duqm, and Salalah, as well as the oilfield areas of the Sultanate, continue to be hives of activity despite the tightening lockdown ordered by the government.

However, many companies with large numbers of workers – Omani and expatriate alike – on their rolls, have pointed that shuttering project sites can be more problematic than, say, ordering the closure of commercial or retail establishments.

“For one, many of these projects are government-driven and are key to sustaining the nation’s economic development over the long-term. While a temporary pause is possible, any protracted delays will result in cost escalations, which are not acceptable in today’s constrained fiscal environment,” an executive representing a major oilfield contractor explained.

“Secondly, unless the client, per se, which at many project sites is the government or a public sector enterprise, issues a force majeure declaration, the contractor is left with no option but to continue working per agreed commitments.”

A number of well-established contractors interviewed by the Observer have insisted that their virus containment strategies deployed at worksites are in line with international best practices on pandemic prevention.

A management executive representing one of the largest contractors in the Sultanate said: “We have strict measures in place to ensure that our workers are not exposed to the virus at the workplace. Every member is checked for their body temperature at least twice every day, while visitors are suitably screened as well. As the risk of exposure is primarily from workers returning from their annual leave, all returnees are mandatorily quarantined for 14 days per Health Ministry requirements before they mix with the rest of the staff. In fact, we have a large group of quarantined workers who are due to complete their isolation over the weekend and will join back work shortly.”

He further added: “If construction sites are ordered close, then it would be a huge challenge to ensure that the thousands of workers on our rolls are confined to camps.  They will want to head into town, meet with friends, and so on, and thus fall foul of the government’s call to the public not to loiter or congregate in public areas. There’s also the issue of compensation – who will compensate contractors during the period of any lockdown? So all of these concerns should be carefully taken into consideration before a lockdown is announced for the construction sector.”