Undertaking 5,500 summer surveys during a global pandemic was challenging but, with the use of digital approaches and health and safety protocols, it was feasible, as Caroline Jewell MCIEEM explains

In summer 2020, on behalf of Laing O’Rourke and J. Murphy & Sons joint venture (LM), Binnies, an RSK company, undertook 5,500 ecological surveys across Phase 1 North of the HS2 route as part of LM’s enabling-works contract. Th e surveys undertaken were a bat roost assessment and bat emergence, water vole, otter, great crested newt, white-clawed crayfish, barn owl and reptile surveys. This article sets out the methods that Binnies used to manage this wide-ranging suite of survey types over the year in which the Covid-19 pandemic reached the UK. The work included the use of a common data environment (CDE) for assigning surveys and collecting quality data.

Following lessons learnt from the HS2 ecological survey work carried out in 2019, the Binnies data products and services (DPS) and environmental services teams worked together to create a bespoke survey data platform called Onsite. Using this innovative approach helped Binnies increase the number of ecological surveys undertaken from fewer than 1,000 in 2019 to 5,500 in 2020, despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new system enabled us to receive, process and assure 200–300 surveys a week. Previously, this process took more than a month.

Onsite uses Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) products to facilitate users viewing and editing collected spatial data to produce a geographical information system (GIS) deliverable based on a template, the LM HS2 Schema, provided by LM. The system removed the need for Excel worksheets that can introduce errors into the final deliverable. It was designed by our ecological technical authority and the DPS team to ensure that the resulting product was fit for use by ecologists. All data generated and collected by the survey work were to be stored in a CDE.

Species leads were assigned to each survey type. Surveyor briefing notes were set out by each species lead based on survey guidance provided by LM. The species lead then specified the fields required to create forms for each unique survey type. Our GIS team then used an ArcGIS Survey 123 (an ESRI product) form to create survey forms for each survey type. These were designed to satisfy the LM schema exactly; drop-down fields were used where only a limited number of answers to a question were permitted and field lengths were restricted where required. This was tested by the species leads and the forms were then linked to Onsite. Figure 1 shows a screenshot of a bat emergence survey form used for the 2020 surveys. Binnies used a dedicated scheduling team to schedule the surveys. We were also responsible for managing the land access requests and we set up a dedicated land access team.

Surveyors received a bespoke induction to the project from Binnies before completing any surveys. Th e induction involved the background to the survey, specific known hazards, procedures to follow and how to collect and submit the survey data to the CDE.

Assigning surveys
Assignments for all the surveyors, with target locations, were sent out using the ESRI product Workforce, which was linked to the Binnies CDE. Our GIS team loaded Workforce using a spreadsheet created by our scheduling team. The schedule was based on what surveys could be completed, factoring in the resources available, optimal timings of the surveys and any spacing of replicate surveys according to standard survey guidance (see, for example, Collins (2016) and English Nature (2001)).

Workers were supplied with tablet computers that they used to log into Workforce each week to access their assignments. Workforce provided them with a geographical pin of the feature to be
surveyed and specific details of that feature, such as historical data, hazards associated with the survey, controls in place for their safety and parking suggestions. Workers could then open their survey form for that unique assignment via Workforce.

Health and safety
To manage the volume of surveys LM required to be undertaken in 2020, a team of sub-consultants and in-house and freelance ecologists was established.

Th e lead surveyor completed a separate site-specific risk assessment (SSRA) for each survey so that identified hazards were passed to future survey teams and it was clear that they had implemented measures to control the hazards identified on-site. When complete, the SSRA form was submitted to the CDE. Despite being a separate form, the SSRA was embedded in the webpage view in Onsite. This meant that it was directly linked to the unique survey, so health and safety hazards and the controls required were flagged immediately following submission. These could then be passed to the next survey team on that site to keep the surveyors safe. If a survey was deemed unsafe to continue, the surveyors also had the option of not continuing with the survey and instead completing an aborted survey form that would be submitted to the CDE.

Managing the Covid-19 pandemic
Planning for the surveys commenced in winter 2019/2020, with the on-site start planned to coincide with the great crested newt season. However, Covid-19 restrictions were placed on the country in March 2020, resulting in all Binnies office support staff being required to work from home if possible. This was followed by a period of IT set-up in people’s homes while trying to start the surveys. The HS2 project was classed as a critical infrastructure project by the UK government, so the surveys could continue.

We risk assessed the best way of delivering survey logistics during the pandemic. This resulted in negotiating the exclusive use of two hotels close to the main survey area for our site support team and surveyors, and developing an extensive set of Covid-19 mitigation measures within the hotels. For example, the hotels initially provided breakfast and dinner for the surveyors in their rooms (or meals were collected from reception) to reduce contact.

A dedicated site support team was also set up to deal with the additional Covid-19 logistics. Its role included:

  • Procurement of Covid-19 personal protective equipment: sanitiser, masks, gloves, etc.
  • Cleaning of survey kit between teams as well as all the standard survey logistics.
  • Being a constant source of support, both technical and pastoral, to surveyors working away from home at this difficult time.

The site support team was on-site, living and working out of the two hotels, for almost seven months, and some members even voluntarily stayed there at weekends to avoid the risk of transmitting Covid-19 between home and site.

Twenty different types of ecology survey were risk assessed to ensure they could be undertaken safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. When this was complete, we developed Covid-19 method statements and risk-mitigation measures for each survey type. A Covid-19 survey protocol was produced and circulated to all site staff and surveyors. Measures in the protocol included travelling separately to each survey, maintaining social distancing during the survey and implementing infection control measures. Our health and safety team carried out twice-weekly survey audits to ensure that Covid-19 protocols were followed.

We also provided separate mobile toilet blocks in a fixed location with Covid-19- safe protocols for our surveyors, as the availability of safe public welfare was vastly reduced during the lockdowns. Each surveyor was issued with an essential travel letter that they carried at all times in case they were challenged when working. There were no reports of challenges to our surveyors during the survey period.

We moved inductions and training for all surveyors and staff online. About 150 staff and surveyors from more than 10 different subcontractors were inducted through this Covid-19-safe method.

By placing the health, safety and welfare of our and subcontractors’ staff front and centre, in-line with LM and our work culture and practices, we ensured the ecological surveys could be completed safely despite the pandemic so that the enabling works programme could continue as planned. To our knowledge, no one on the project contracted Covid-19 from undertaking the surveys.

Survey data
When a survey was complete and the surveyor was happy with the data recorded on their survey form, it was submitted and was then directly viewable and editable in Onsite. A two-stage quality assurance process was followed before the data were ready to convert into the LM GIS Schema.

Onsite provides a clear platform for auditing survey data from the surveyors; these include weather details, limitations, the survey results and comments from the surveyors to the species leads on the surveys’ validity. Auditors could directly see photos (see Figure 3), sketch maps and bat sound files, which were all stored against the unique survey in the CDE but available in one editable view in Onsite. This enabled rapid quality assurance as the need for Excel documents and shared drives was eliminated and with it the potential for error. Any survey that was considered invalid – mainly due to sub-optimal weather or because the full extent of a potential roosting feature could not be surveyed according to the survey guidance, so alternative methods were required – was picked up quickly and rescheduled so we could aim to fulfil LM’s survey scope. Of the 5500 surveys undertaken, fewer than 5% were found to be invalid.

Although 2020 was a challenging year for the implementation of ecological surveys, Binnies undertook 5,500 surveys during the pandemic. In the previous year, fewer than 1,000 surveys were undertaken on this project. The increased scale of the survey effort was made possible through using our CDE for assignments and the collection of data.

The Onsite platform was set up to view various data stored in the CDE in one accessible view. This meant that, when a submission was received, our quality assurance team could confirm that they
were surveying the correct feature and undertaking the survey according to the survey guidance. Quality data and summary reports could therefore be issued to the client rapidly so they knew where protected species were located and could quickly develop mitigation schemes and obtain any licences required to maximise the work that could be completed during the appropriate season.

Schema: A schema is a model for describing the structure of information, which, in the case of this project, was made up of a series of tables linked with unique identification numbers.
Common data environment: This is the single source of information for a project, which holds the survey assignment and submitted survey data for each survey linked by a unique identification number.
Alongside the assignment and survey data, information concerning progress through the quality assurance process is also held

Caroline is a principal environmental scientist at Binnies with a background in ecology and 15 years of experience in ecological surveys and assessments. Caroline was the data delivery manager for the LM 2020 survey work, so was responsible for quality assurance of the ecological data delivered to LM.

Collins, J. (ed.) (2016). Bat Surveys for Professional Ecologists: Good Practice Guidelines (3rd edn). The Bat Conservation Trust, London. Available at: https://www.bats. org.uk/resources/guidance-for-professionals/bat-surveys-for-professional-ecologists-good-practice-guidelines-3rd-edition, accessed 25/11/2021.

English Nature (2001). Great Crested Newt Mitigation Guidelines. English Nature, Peterborough. Available at: https://cieem. net/resource/great-crested-newt-mitigation-guidelines/, accessed 25/11/2021.

Maxar Microsoft (2021) Available at: https:// www.maxar.com/products/satellite-imagery World Street Map, ©OpenStreetMap contributors and the GIS User Community, 2021