Expert Commentary

COVID-19—The Effect on the Construction Site

A safety professional recently shared that his construction site was getting back to normal since COVID-19 made its appearance. And I agree. There are few things worse in a safety system than disruption.


Construction Safety
January 2021

While working on steel erection, your team is missing one or two long-term veterans—you bring on a spotter to help. The piece of steel they rigged slips a bit and hits the ground. You will blame that "green" worker but not COVID-19 that introduced the error into your system. Don't accept that as the "new normal" you hear on the news about COVID-19.

During the Challenger shuttle disaster, the idea of a "new normal" crept into our world. That's when you accept what is not within the range of agreed performance and start to accept that variance without a study of the potential consequences. That approach at NASA shuttered the shuttle program and created too many unwilling heroes.

When we speak about COVID-19, we talk about the forced quarantines, the physical barriers, and the need for spacing reminders on floors. But there are other social and system concerns to consider.

Post-COVID-19 System

The pandemic was hugely disruptive and affected construction site safety. Those well-functioning teams that we had created broke apart. When projects were halted, our great crews and crew leaders were dispersed to look for work elsewhere. When we restarted the project, new workers were introduced into what we expected would be a smooth restart—it was not.

Those remaining experts that supervised the work could no longer maintain their safety system with the new people aboard. System creep sets in. We had to relearn what we used to do while wearing the masks and shields we were uncomfortable with. Safety glasses that used to sometimes fog up never cleared. But we are now seeing order restored in the field; the system being formed is falling back into shape.

COVID-19 captains were chosen from within the ranks. No one knew what that role entailed. Today, full-time staff tirelessly oversee our COVID-19 confusion: what policy to follow, why follow the policies that failed the first time around, and who decides who must leave the site and quarantine for 2 weeks after a COVID-19 exposure? Those "travelers" unlucky enough to get symptoms at work often cannot go home to their loved ones. This makes for tragic times for some.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which helps to "ensure safe and healthful working conditions," stepped in, revised its enforcement guidelines, and determined that exposures at work would be considered recordable. Though the policy will negatively affect a firm's OSHA incident rates, per OSHA, "recording a COVID-19 illness does not, of itself, mean that the employer has violated any OSHA standard."

There is also a financial toll to firms that started early in this disaster that has not stopped. Masks that were available for a dollar now sell for $4. These had to be purchased and repurchased again and again. COVID-19 cleaning crews now range across worksites like little robots. It's the new front line of the pandemic—critical to the work but unanticipated in any 2020 budget.

Science weighed in, and we are buying air filters to upgrade our systems, flushless toilets and faucets, and door-openers you can manipulate with your feet. But do we overlook the toilet seat as a contact surface?

Social

When the experts speak about "herd immunity," that supports the idea that man has developed and resists enemies in packs. We need that social interaction, care, protection, and, for some, the audience a pack provides. COVID-19 has disrupted this need. Here are some examples that directly affect this need to gather with those on the job site.

Hang around the water cooler or coffee pot, and you are now shamed by others: "Keep your distance … 6 feet, dude." The chance to discuss the project, your obstacles, and your successes are now eliminated. Such conversations are critical to the day-to-day operation of a construction project. Immediate feedback from peers and managers is now missing.

The idea of being your "brother's keeper" is drilled into workers at orientation. Forming friendships happens on projects. In this time of COVID-19, that's no longer the case. Lunch is taken well away from others. Tasks that took two people working closely together are now avoided. If it takes two people to lift a pipe, one will try to lift it instead of calling a coworker over to help.

Crews no longer meet for a beer at the Rusty Nail to share how many feet of pipe they installed or what the plan is the following day. There's no discussion of what their buddies are planning for the weekend with their families. Critical for those traveling, those workers now grab a meal from a to-go joint, head past the gathering area of the hotel (now closed), and sit alone in their rooms.

Many "travelers" move around the country, yes, in a pack. They share apartments to keep costs in check, carpool to the construction site, and share the cooking. No more. The threat is too large to the pack. If one gets "the COVID," that crew that lived together now quarantines together. Carpooling is a real threat. In one case, four fellows sharing an apartment went fishing for the weekend. Soon they were sent to differing hotels to quarantine for 2 weeks.

Travelers are more common than one knows. These road warriors who are experts in construction range across our nation from megaprojects to the next. Getting home is critical to their families and to them. Now they need to determine if they can go home. Will they need to coordinate a test when they arrive in that state? Can they visit friends when home, or do they need to spend 10 days in quarantine first? And above all, will they bring COVID-19 back to their loved ones? The impact on the mental health of travelers and their families is one of the most significant in our industry.

One unique area of this pandemic is the need to completely trust each other. This is the threat encountered each day on every project in the world. If you wake up with symptoms, you need to tell those you are living with. The threat to any firm is the individual who has symptoms and does not share that information with the pack. We know how quickly this virus spreads, and one individual's decision can and has resulted in entire crews removed from sites for 14 days before they can return. Will those unwitting workers get paid? Perhaps. Will the project schedule be affected? Certainly.

The bottom line is that there is a cost to people and firms that we must address. Companies are recognizing the damage this crisis is doing to our workforce, to managers, to workers, and to their families. Many are placing mental health professionals at the worksite. In addition, loans are being provided by some firms to help those employees that are overstretched and overstressed.

Opportunities to remain connected through mass gatherings are being worked out. Find a big space, get a loud speaking system, and talk to the crews. Feedback is gathered on what can be done better. A suggestion on safety glasses that don't fog too fast is encouraged. Consider supplying helmets with clear safety shields that, in some settings, eliminate the need to wear our dreaded face coverings.

One firm has found a way to globally link their safety professionals on a biweekly call. It's a chance for simple conversation and a way to offer up some complaints and perhaps solutions. But the biggest benefit is the chance to socialize as a group.

A Suggestion

There is no better time than now to listen to those doing our work. Those sons and daughters are often isolated during the day and some when they return to their hotel rooms.

If you are an owner, now is the right time to walk your project and thank your team—not just the project managers and workers but everyone—from the security guy at the gate to the crews cleaning the porta potties. These are your soldiers; they are facing a lot of unknowns right now and must be thanked.

Managing a project? Take a walk alone, look, and listen. See someone on the phone who should be working? That may be a wife on the line who must go to work but cannot find a sitter. Ask that person how you can help. See a crew with all of their personal protective equipment (PPE) "masked-up," go over and thank them, then ask if there is anything you can do to make their day better. Then stop talking and listen. What they have to say is what you need to hear.

The workers have a role in this too. Gather them in small groups and sincerely let them know they need to help each other. Ask for their help. If they see someone stretched past their limits, they must step in. If someone on the team is troubled and needs support, let them know they just need to call, and you will figure something out.

This pandemic will be costly to the world and impact our construction sites. Keep an eye on the true cost of the pandemic, and track those lessons you learned for the next one, like stocking face coverings now. And take the time to listen to those constructing those great buildings we love to put together.

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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