A health and safety expert has raised questions about the clarity of Government advice on essential construction work as employees are warned they could face action if they do not protect workers' health during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Health and Safety Executive, Trade Unions Congress and Confederation of British Industry released a joint statement which it said was "intended to clarify the position" around safe working during the crisis.

The statement said: "Firms that can safely stay open and support livelihoods should not be forced to close by misunderstandings about government guidance."

Most employers were going to "great lengths to ensure social distancing wherever possible", it said.

It added: "If it comes to the HSE’s attention that employers are not complying with the relevant Public Health England guidance (including enabling social distancing where it is practical to do so), HSE will consider a range of actions ranging from providing specific advice to employers through to issuing enforcement notices, including prohibition notices."

James Woolgrove, who runs health and safety consultancy James Woolgrove Associates, based in Warton, near Carnforth, and is a former chair of the South Cumbria Occupational Health and Safety Group said there was still confusion among some in construction about what constituted essential work.

"The Irish government have given some really, really good guidance as to what is essential construction," he said.

"The UK haven't. I am tending to follow the Irish guidance. They have been quite specific about what's essential."

Included among the definition of essential work in the Irish guidelines is work to ensure the running of hospitals, maintain sanitary and safe conditions for people in their homes and maintain major infrastructure.

Despite the lack of specific definitions of essential construction by the UK Government, James said many tradespeople were making their own decision to down tools.

"Can they say honestly, 'My work is so essential that I have to do it and take that risk?'" he said.

"All the people I have been working with here have decided it's not worth it. Those trades are deciding, 'We don't want to go out because we don't want to risk the safety of our families'.

"Now they can furlough people that has helped trades a lot."

For those who did have to continue work during the outbreak, James said there were some essential guidelines to follow.

Firstly, everyone should travel to the place they were working in separate vehicles to reduce the risk of infection.

Every site should make sure that once there, staff had access to hot water and handwash facilities.

"You should have hot water and soap on every single site," said James.

"That's not just for Covid-19, that's essential."

If anyone showed symptoms of illness, whether or not they seemed related to coronavirus, they should go home, he said.

"We've got a bit of a culture of presenteeism in the UK and we've got to knock that out," he said.

"Don't go if you've got symptoms of any illness."

To ensure social distancing whilst at work, it was important to plan work and how distancing would be maintained while a particular job was carried out.

"It's down to the basics of planning and preparation," he said.

"Have you thought through how you are going to do it? Spend a few extra minutes planning before you do."