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After a day of rising concerns over the ability of the construction industry to respond appropriately to the Government’s health advice regarding the increasingly severe Coronavirus pandemic, the Archaeological branch of the trade union Prospect has written a strongly worded letter to leading bodies in the archaeological sector, alleging that some employers were insisting on archaeologists working in unsafe conditions. Prospect, and leading professional body the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, have committed to supporting members who believe their health and safety has been put at risk by the actions of employers.

The letter, the text of which has been seen by thePipeLine, was issued by Andy Bye, the Negotiations Officer at Prospect and was the result of a series of messages from worried members.

thePipeLine understands that so serious were the concerns raised that Mr Bye, who does not normally work on Mondays, devoted the entire day to the problem including consultations with a number of individuals, and a series of Skype meetings with Union Rep’s.

The letter alleges that, in spite of the clear and widely published Government guidance and the financial support mechanisms introduced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, loans, business rate holidays, some employers in commercial archaeology still have employees working in, what the union described as, “unsafe conditions”.

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The letter alleges in particular that archaeologists, including, it is claimed, some with underlying medical conditions, are being placed in situations where they cannot maintain the recommended 2m for social distancing.

Reasons cited for this failure include the necessity to travel on crowded public transport, riding in fully loaded vehicles to and from sites, and using crowded site huts.

These concerns echo an increasing numbers of anecdotal reports from traders and site workers in the wider construction industry, which are appearing in Social Media and on radio phone in shows. For example Shelagh Fogety’s programme on LBC on 23 March saw several callers reporting similarly overcrowded site facilities and poor cleaning of shared surfaces, such as fingerprint operated turnstyles, while senior managers and consultants were able to maintain social distancing by working from home.

Acknowledging that stopping work would have a significant financial impact on members of the archaeologicial profession, the letter stated that there was a more important consideration, namely that,

At this difficult time the whole of the archaeology industry needs to take urgent steps to ensure that it is seen to be acting in a professional manner and in the interests of the safety and welfare of all staff, volunteers and the wider public.”

The union also used the letter to reassure members that Prospect would support fully any members and representative if they feel they face unsafe conditions at work, or if they are victimised in any way for taking steps to protect their own health and safety, or the health and safety of others.

Protecting the health and safety of yourself and others is also a requirement under the Code of Conduct of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists [CIfA]. The professional body to which many working in developer funded archaeology also belong.

Speaking on behalf of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, Dr Rob Lennox told thePipeLine,

“We support Prospect Archaeology Branch’s statement on this issue and will be working with them and others in the Industry Working Group to collect and consider the evidence that is emerging, and updating our advice accordingly.”

Dr Lennox also committed the CIfA, the profession’s leading professional body regulating standards and conduct, to addressing the concerns of archaeologists who believed companies registered with the body were not properly addressing the health and safety issues raised by the Covid-19 emergency.

Dr Lennox said,

“We will follow up any reports of Registered Organisations who may be failing to follow Government guidance on social distancing. Any failure to take appropriate action to safeguard staff is likely to be in breach of the CIfA Code of Conduct and we’ll investigate any complaints in line with our professional conduct process.” We recognise that the situation is regularly changing and we are all facing challenges in interpreting advice and adapting to it, but our responsibilities to health and safety are paramount.” 

On the wider issue of whether thearchaeologists should even be continuing to operate in the construction sector Mr Lennox added,

“We have been feeding information to government on a regular basis about how the construction sector can continue to operate safely until such time as the government advice changes to provide more clarity on site closures in the interest of public health.”

The Association of Local Government Archaeology Officers [ALGOA], whose members oversee archaeology in the planning system, has not yet responded formally to the letter from Prospect. However, published advice on the organisatons website states,

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ALGAO UK is aware that measures to deal with the coronavirus will affect the day-to-day running of archaeology in the planning sector. In light of the recent recommendations for social distancing and the avoidance of unnecessary travel we would like to reaffirm that every local authority has a robust business continuity plan in the event of staff shortages and/or changing work circumstances.  These plans will be updated in response to new guidance as it is issued during this period of uncertainty.

ALGOA adds,

Many local authorities are already bringing in recommendations for agile working situations not only to address the government advice for social distancing but also to accommodate staff that may need to change their normal working routines to enable child care as schools close or to care for elderly or vulnerable relatives. Please be patient with staff during this difficult time, we will endeavour to respond to your enquiries as soon as possible.

The third major body, the Eederation of Archaeological Managers and Employers [FAME] has also not responded publicly to the letter for Prospect, however up until now the publiched comments of the organisaton have related to reassurting members and developers that developer funded archaeology can be continued safely in the current situation. thePipeLine has approached FAME for comment.

It remains to be seen whether the concerns at the alleged failures of some in the construction industry and the contracting archaeological companies which serve them will be overtaken by events in the fast moving coronavirus emergency. Just this afternoon the First Minister of Scotland called for the closure of construction sites. However, even if the industry does face a compulsory shut down in the next few days, with all the personal and economic dislocation that will entail, concerns are likely to remian that Prospect felt it necessary to write the letter in the first place.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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