A tour of six commercial sites in inner Melbourne by The Age on Tuesday found examples at every one of building workers centimetres apart, rather than the 1.5 metres recommended by authorities.
Workers interviewed on each site, none of whom wished to be quoted, said there was little or no policing of distancing between them. All said though that there had been some adjustments made such as fewer people in break rooms, staggered shifts so fewer workers were on site and the encouragement of frequent hand washing.
Most said social distancing on construction sites was almost impossible, both because of the culture of the building industry and because there was often a requirement to work in close quarters.
On Tuesday, Dave Noonan, national construction secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said members had reported that some work sites were not changing their practices to meet the strict hygiene and safety measures advised by medical authorities and mandated by the government.
But he argued there must not be a shutdown of the industry, saying it would be devastating to workers and the economy. “The key to keeping workers safe and the industry functioning and able to support all its people is enacting stringent health and safety protocols immediately,” Mr Noonan said.
There was an even split between those The Age interviewed who felt it was safe enough to go on, and those who felt unions should be lobbying for a shut down to protect workers.
Rebecca Casson, the chief executive of Master Builders Victoria, said employers had done a lot of work to stress to workers how important it was to follow social distancing practices.
“Many sites have been taking appropriate measures, but we have received some reports where people are not observing social distancing guidelines,” she said. “[We need] to treat this situation seriously, it’s a matter of life and death.”
The Victorian opposition warned that because of the serious health concerns that confronted workers in every industry, if the building industry did not comply, it too risked being closed down.
“Any industry that is not able to practice social distancing per the directions of the national cabinet must change its practices immediately,” planning spokesman Tim Smith said.
Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.