Protecting you and your customers

With the green light to get back to work, installers will need to adapt their operating procedures to fit the new normal. PHAM News rounds up advice specific to plumbers and heating engineers.  

The UK government’s recent move to ease up on the lockdown has sent a signal to the public that it needs to get back to work. Those who can work from home are urged to do so, and those who cannot have been given general guidance on how to navigate in the new COVID world. In a nutshell, the government is calling for ‘common sense’, which means plumbing and heating firms will  have to translate official advice into specific actions that protect themselves, their employees and their customers. 

It’s not clear yet how willing people will be to allow tradespeople into their homes, and it may be a while before plumbers are asked to install new bathrooms or replace heating systems that still perform, but in the meantime it makes sense to prepare business for operating safely in the COVID environment. 

“The way plumbing and heating businesses trade is changing, and it is more than likely going to change forever,” says John Thompson, CEO of the APHC. “Consumers are being more selective and cautious when appointing tradespeople to work in their homes, so installers and engineers need to understand what they need to do to gain the confidence of the consumer.”     

Government advice
When it comes time to reboot business, an important resource will be the government’s document, ‘Working safely during COVID-19 in other people’s homes’. Although it applies specifically to people in England, it offers a practical framework of advice that will be useful to installers wherever they are working.   

Across the four nations, installers are permitted to carry out repair and maintenance work, provided that the installer is well, has no COVID-19 symptoms, and ensures a 2m distance is maintained at all times. If a household contains someone who is shielding, self-isolating, or has symptoms of the virus, you really shouldn’t go there at all. The HHIC says no work should be carried out under these circumstances unless it is to remedy a direct risk to safety.

The government advises carrying out  a COVID-19 risk assessment in all circumstances. The CIPHE has developed a protocol for this, available for download from its website. Because installers work in many different types of locations and buildings, they will confront a range of different variables. Therefore, planning how to work – either alone or with others – requires time to stop and think.

Communication is key
In a recent webinar held by the CIPHE on how industry is adapting to work in these times, Richard Soper, the association’s development director, said: “Installers will need to be well prepared with process and procedure when going into people’s homes. You need to make sure the consumer is confident with risk assessment and the work you are doing. Health and safety should be in mind at all times.” 

The first step is to speak with the customer prior to showing up in person. In the first instance, find out if a visit is absolutely necessary. If it is, a telephone call in advance is a simple way to evaluate whether people on site represent a potential transmission risk. It is also an opportunity for installers to demonstrate that they are responsible and trustworthy by laying down preventive measures. This may help to reduce any anxiety a customer might have in letting a stranger through the door.   

A phone call will also give customers a chance to understand operating procedures and adhere to agreed upon behaviours. Talk to them about how everyone can keep a safe distance from each other, ideally with household members staying in a different room while work proceeds. Ventilate the work area where possible, such as opening a window.  

It’s also important to make sure of access on site to a sink for thorough hand washing. Consider bringing your own hand towel for drying up. You can also ask the householder to make sure the area you are to work in has been cleaned with an appropriate cleanser before you get there. Make use of hand sanitiser often and use gloves where possible.  

Now is also a good time to make use of electronic resources that can minimise or eliminate physical paperwork, particularly when it comes to invoices and payment. David Holmes, founder of Boiler Guide, says: “Making payments as straightforward as possible for customers is crucial to ensure a timely payment,” he says. “Cash usage has plummeted during the outbreak, so provide an invoice well in advance and make it easy for customers to pay by card or bank transfer.”  

To mask or not to mask?
Use of face masks is not a legal requirement, however, if tasks involve working in teams, the CIPHE recommends wearing a protective face covering if possible. That said, face coverings should not act as a  replacement for other methods of managing risk, like frequent handwashing.   

Once you have completed the job, you will want go beyond your usual routine and take additional steps to clean up after yourself. Wipe down the surfaces you have touched on site as well as your own kit, such as tools and instruments. Properly bag all waste, including spent PPE and cleansing wipes,  and dispose of it safely. Always wash your hands thoroughly before moving on to the next job. 

What to buy
The CIPHE recently conducted an informal poll among installers and found that some 94% of those questioned said they will use some form of PPE when they go back to work. Plumbers merchants are a good place to start when it comes to sourcing materials like gloves, masks, shoe covers, and disposable overalls.  

One new item that has been developed in response to the COVID outbreak is the TouchSafe, a handguard that shield hands from contact with potentially contaminated surfaces. It is a device that grips all types of door handle, whether pushing, twisting or pulling action is required, and features a conductive nib for use on all types of touchscreens (capacitive and resistive) and keypads. 

Developed by GP Dr Stephen Bright, he says: “Of course, hand washing with soap and water is always the most effective first line of defence against germs but for those utilities workers who are working offsite and don’t have easy access to wash facilities, TouchSafe provides a convenient and portable extra line of protection.”

For those who are having trouble finding hand sanitiser, Wiseman Industries offers a wide range of hand cleaning products under its MediGrade Pro range. CEO Harvey Wiseman says: “We have responded directly to our customers at this unprecedented time, asking for a medical grade spray and gel. The high alcohol content forms the first line of defence to ensure the COVID-19 virus and other viruses are killed on contact.”

Being professional
At a time when householders are more wary than ever of bringing tradespeople into their homes, trade professionalism has never been more important. Speaking at the CIPHE’s COVID webinar, Richard Soper said: “In the new normal it will be important for installers to emphasise professionalism to customers. With less work available, the question of who you let in your house will be tied to professionalism. If there is a benefit to this, it will be a heightened expectation of professionalism in our industry that lasts into the future.”


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