For the past week the HVAC&R and wider building industry has been scrambling to assess the impacts that stricter COVID-19 restrictions will have on businesses and employees.
On August 2, the Victorian government declared a state of disaster and imposed new Stage 4 lockdown measures. Rules around workplaces, which extend to construction sites, were further strengthened on August 5, sparking concerns within the HVAC&R community that its professionals may have to stop work.
Large-scale construction, which includes projects of more than three storeys, can only have a maximum of 25 per cent of normal employees onsite compared to normal operations. They must have a High Risk COVID Safe Plan and must demonstrate not blending shifts. And workers can only work at one site during Stage 4 restrictions, scheduled to last six weeks. This last point may be an obstacle for HVAC&R contractors, who typically work across many sites.
The same “one site only” restriction applies to small-scale construction, which includes projects of three storeys or less. A maximum of five workers (including supervisors) are allowed, again working with a Universal COVID Safe Plan and not blending shifts.
State and state civil construction (including time-critical new school builds) are exempt from reduction targets but will be required to implement a High Risk COVID Safe Plan.
KPMG Chief Economist Brendan Rynne has estimated that up to 50,000 workers in construction could be affected by the new restrictions. This may be felt more at the end of the six-week restrictions, however, and may not involve job losses in all cases.
Meanwhile, HVAC&R industry bodies have been working with the Victorian government to confirm how the restrictions apply to professionals working outside construction – such as building services maintenance and repairs.
The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH), has highlighted that within the government’s permitted worker scheme, HVAC&R is clearly covered under the first category:
Ancillary and support businesses are able to open onsite to ensure the necessary production, supply, manufacture, repair, maintenance, cleaning, security, wholesale, distribution, transportation or sale of equipment, goods or services required for the operations of a Permitted Work Premises, or for Closed Work Premises where there are safety or environmental obligations.
The detailed restrictions published by the Department of Health and Human Services also note that “critical repairs to residential premises, are allowed, where required for emergency or safety”, and makes provisions for manufacturers of heating and cooling equipment and trade wholesalers. Both Kirby and Actrol have confirmed that their branches are open for business.
“It is good to see that, under the rules, HVAC&R practitioners will be able to continue working,” says AIRAH CEO Tony Gleeson, M.AIRAH.
“Our sector underpins so many of the services that are lifelines for Victorians trying to get on top of COVID-19. That includes supermarkets and refrigerated transport, as well as hospitals and aged-care facilities, and the data centres we are all so reliant on as people increasingly work online.”
Gleeson also notes that the rules clearly allow for maintenance of HVAC&R systems and stresses that this work must continue, even when buildings are unoccupied.
“Cooling towers and condensed water systems, for example, can pose significant community health risks if they are not maintained,” Gleeson says. “Not only that, essential safety and maintenance measures must be kept up to date, otherwise the statutory maintenance regime is not up to date and therefore not in compliance – and workers will not be able to return to the building when restrictions ease.”
The Australian Refrigeration Council (ARC) has also commented on the restrictions, noting that “it may be able to be interpreted from [the government’s] guidance that most RAC services can continue during this period”.
It has, however, hit out at the Victorian government for not listing refrigeration and air conditioning as an essential service of its own.
“Despite lobbying of the Victorian Premier, the refrigeration and air conditioning (RAC) sector was a glaring omission from the ‘essential services’ list released by the government on Monday as Victoria moved into Stage 4 restrictions,” says the ARC.
“The ARC has again been in contact with the Premier’s office highlighting that the refrigeration and air conditioning trade should be classified as ‘essential business’ status in its own right during all stages of restrictions.”