Safety: Dealing with a Pandemic

AWCI Contractors Respond to COVID-19

David C. Phillips / June 2020

An article on safety had already been planned for this issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions, but a new angle suddenly took front seat: How to deal with a pandemic!

    
Even though this article was written mid-April with the pandemic situation still very much in flux, we wanted to share the successes, difficulties, experience, wisdom and lessons learned in dealing with this unprecedented situation by contractor members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry.

The COVID-19 Effect
Our first question was to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic affected AWCI members and their companies. The answers ranged all the way from one extreme to the other and show that it’s definitely not the same everywhere or for everyone.
    
“We are still operating and haven’t taken additional actions,” says Michael Mazzone, president of Statewide General Contracting and Construction Inc. in Hawaii.
    
This is echoed by Greg Smith, area operations manager at Mirage Builders, Inc. in Nevada: “Currently our operations have not been affected. We are being responsible in our approach to this pandemic, practicing the mandated distances for the safety of our essential office employees and sanitizing commonly used items often.”
    
Jerry Reicks, president/CEO of JARCO Builders Ltd., Iowa reports: “As of today, April 2, our workforce is intact and our office staff are all reporting for work. We have added six new people to our workforce and all projects are business as usual. This could all, of course, change in a heartbeat.”
    
At the other end of the scale, Richard Ostrom, president of RAM Acoustical Corporation in Pennsylvania, reports, “We are closed due to Governor Wolfe’s orders. No employees that I am aware of were infected. We have not had any contact with employees—they were all laid off while we wait on a direction.”
    
“The pandemic has shut us down 100 percent,” says Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co. in Vermont.
    
Likewise, John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California, reports, “We are completely shut down. All of our company is sheltering in place per government directive.”
    
There are many shades of gray in between these extremes.
    
Norman Kay, manager of Pro-Wall, LLC in Colorado, says they are still working but with extra precautions and maintaining the social distancing. “So far, we have avoided the virus,” he says. “We have had several jobs shut down and others put on hold.”
    
Jonathan Heering, risk manager at F.L. Crane & Sons in Mississippi, summarizes what is true for most of the companies still operating during the pandemic: “Senior management’s focus has shifted significantly to planning for the immediate and lasting impacts of the pandemic.”
    
The criteria of essential versus non-essential projects is the key to whether or not companies are staying in production, and this varies by state. New York, Washington and California are generally shut down. Some states less badly affected, such as Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and Hawaii, have fewer restrictions.
    
Michael Weber, president of Island Acoustics LLC in New York, says, “A large share of our business is in the healthcare sector. Pursuant to the governor’s orders, contractors in the construction industry of the healthcare sector are considered essential. In the last few weeks, we have mobilized with our healthcare clientele on testing sites, constructed tents, built patient rooms and, unfortunately, morgues.”
    
Sean Hallinan of Sunshine Commercial Construction, Inc. in California reports, “We are basically shut down as all job sites, other than affordable housing and public works, have been shuttered. Most of our crew have been sitting at home.”
    
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, says, “We have been shut down, then reopened, as we are involved in many healthcare projects, each of which can seek exemptions from our governor’s office. Some projects may be ‘mission critical’ or ‘life sustaining,’ but many companies are seeking exemptions when I don’t think they are being transparent in their requests and are knowingly putting lives at risk.”
    
And so it goes, state by state, company by company, with much variety, depending on the location and the nature of the projects.

Precautions and Measures
What precautions are contractors taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at job sites and in the office? Everyone, as expected, is following the guidelines set out by the CDC, federal, state and local government, as well as the thorough and specific OSHA guidelines. But also, as expected, there is considerable latitude in just how these guidelines are applied.
    
Ron Karp, principal at Advanced Masonry Systems in Florida, summarizes how they are implementing the guidelines: “Our facility is on virtual lockdown, and those in the building are spread out in their private offices. Some administrative staff have chosen to work from home, so we have set them up with VPNs. We are doing routine total wipe-downs of the floors and surfaces with the recommended materials throughout the entire building. Our field personnel are being provided with masks, face shields, gloves, and other items as needed to maintain safety and CDC guidelines. Our safety personnel travel to all our projects on a daily basis to ensure all safety guidelines are being followed.”
    
But the guidelines cannot hope to deal with every detail in the construction industry.
    
Brian McMuldren shared the documents issued by his company, WPI in Oregon, covering their policy and plans for work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a few excerpts highlight specific issues that need to be dealt with: “Only one worker will be allowed in each boom lift or scissor lift at a time. …WPI is temporarily allowing lightweight 12’ drywall to be hung by a single worker when no other means of maintaining the 60foot distance is practicable. … Any WPI employee, who for any reason does not feel safe coming to the job site, shall be allowed to take a voluntary lay off and remain in good standing with WPI.”
    
Jim Kruse, president of Copper Spring Solutions LLC in Colorado, shared a letter he sent to his employees, in English and Spanish, with directions for them to follow. Here are some excerpts:
    
“… Our goal is two-fold: keep you guys safe and healthy, and keep you working.
    
“If you are feeling sick, please stay home. If symptoms persist for several days, please contact a clinic. Several clinics have switched to Tele-Medicine that will allow you to use a computer to speak to a doctor. If you can’t get better, get tested for COVID-19 so treatment can begin immediately.
    
“Please know that Dave, Nick, Mike, Bud and myself are working relentlessly to keep work coming in. We have a very strong backlog, and we are bidding several great projects. We appreciate all you guys do. We want you to remain healthy so we can continue to build great projects in Colorado.
    
“I have attached a letter for you to keep with you in case you are pulled over and questioned while on your way to work. Please contact me if there is anything I can do for you.”
    
Sarah Aird-Nichols of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland provides insight into measures taken at their company: “I believe we were more prepared than many due to the fact that we already have to abide by safety rules and regulations including respiratory protections, gloves, face masks, etc. We also are required to keep first aid kits and equipment on all job sites. We have not had to deal with a situation like this before. The biggest thing we can all do is educate our employees, staff, and their families and this we have been doing continually.”
    
Lee Zaretsky, president of Ronsco Inc. in New York, shares his company’s experiences and lessons from one of the hardest-hit areas in the country: “One of the biggest risks in transferring is the hands. We use rubber gloves with work gloves on top. To avoid touching of the face we use face shields as opposed to safety glasses, because people will have a tendency to go to their face to remove glasses.”
    
He adds, “The trickiest part we run into is not knowing who and what to believe. Some people were concealing the fact they had been exposed because they just decided ‘I need to work.’ It’s very selfish behavior, not thinking about who they might contaminate and who those people might be coming in contact with. So another guideline is screening (temperature) before going on to the site and during the work day. People need to self-screen and stay home where there is any sign of sickness.”
    
Bill Fritz, CEO of Mission Interiors Contracting LLC in Texas, describes precautions taken at his company: “Practice guidelines of social distancing, N95 masks and gloves for all personnel on site. All office personnel have the option to work at the office with closed doors and no interaction other than phone, or to work from home.”
    
On the lighter side, Roger Olson, president/CEO of Sig Olson & Sons Plastering, Inc. in Minnesota, says, “We have purchased extra hand sanitizer so everyone has it handy: A local distillery is making it out of gin and vodka and adding aloe gel to it. It smells plenty suspicious, but I’m sure it does the job.”

Keep Calm and Carry On
Part of the effects of a pandemic such as COVID-19, where reliable facts and trustworthy information can be scarce and clouded by media distortions and misinformation, is the state of anxiety amounting almost to panic, which can cause as much harm to operations and stability as the virus itself. So, our next question was, “If you are still in operation, what actions have you taken to prevent panic and unnecessary disruptions?”
    
Almost everyone who responded to this question stressed the importance of maintaining communication with employees.
    
“Communication, communication, communication,” asserts Michael Weber. “We are informing all office and field staff of the mind-bending, ever-changing health and safety regulations as required by the federal government, the CDC and the governor of New York.”
    
Randal Newman, president of Silver Star Plastering, Inc. in Texas, summarizes the actions his company has taken: “More safety meetings, visiting jobs daily to check their needs, and practicing all safety precautions we can.”
    
In addition to ensuring the health and safety of employees, concerns about their jobs and futures are obviously close to the hearts of the workforce.
    
Says Brenda Reicks, managing partner at Tri-State Drywall, LLC in Iowa, “We have not shut down any job sites—yet. We have good communication with general contractors with whom we have contracts. We try to assure them that we will keep our crews on their jobs and supply the required materials. We have assured our employees that we are open for business unless the government forces a shut down.”
    
As employees work more and more from home, the use of technology for staying in touch has played a big part.
    
Adam Barbee, estimator/project manager at Daley’s Drywall & Taping in Campbell, Calif., says, “Most of our operations, such as estimating and project management, are all being done from home. We have daily and weekly check-ins with our team through emails. Skype has been a really positive avenue for our internal staff. We all have a chance to see and check in with one another—a way to socialize virtually. We have been taking extensive advantage of technology through this hard time.”
    
Employees knowing their employers care about their welfare is a vital factor in their sense of security. As Shelley Sigurdson, construction safety and health specialist for Expert Drywall Inc. in Washington, says, “The disruptions are real. Workers are nervous, fearing they will take the virus home to their families. With wide media coverage on the pandemic, it’s difficult to prevent some of the panic. All I can do is let them know we care.”
    
This view is echoed by Aird-Nichols: “Making sure our employees know that we are taking every precaution to keep them safe is the best we can do,” she says. “We have extended paid time off to any employee who feels at risk by coming into the office and have given them the option of working remotely from home.”
    
Smith adds, “Daily communication with your team is essential in keeping people informed. When people are informed as to what direction we are going in, it brings an inherent calm.”

How Many Actual Cases?
With so much attention, precaution, effort and money being expended on tackling this pandemic, we wanted to know how many cases of the disease had been encountered by our members. The answers, although varying slightly, can be summed up in two words: very few. We also asked how those cases that were encountered were handled.
    
Sigurdson in Washington reports the most cases of anyone who answered: “So far, three confirmed tests. This is what we did to handle it:
    
“1. Notified all employees who had come into direct contact with the three confirmed cases and put them all on a 14-day quarantine.
    
“2. Notifications to our clients that we had a positive test. Most of these notifications resulted in the project shutting down for deep cleaning.
    
“3. Follow-through on all quarantined employees.
    
“4. Special training company wide. We are continually adding new procedures as we learn more about this virus. It has been very difficult.”
    
Weber in New York reports: “We have had one case of an employee testing positive for the virus. That person is required to quarantine at home for 14 days and will need to be given a clean bill of health by a physician before returning to work.”
    
McMuldren in Oregon says that WPI did have one case test positive. “We worked with the general contractor and followed CDC and Washington health department instructions. We had already walked through the positive test process on the job site on which the positive test occurred.”
    
Jonathan Wohl, president of Wohl Diversified Services in New York, says, “We had exposure from an administrative assistant and have been quarantined for two weeks since our last exposure. No one has shown any symptoms and the assistant was sick very briefly.”
    
Everyone else who answered had had no cases test positive to date, despite some false alarms. However, many are concerned with putting others who are not directly employed or involved at risk. Bernstein points out, “We have not yet had any cases yet, but I fear it is right around the corner since we are having to put people on job sites rather than honoring a shutdown. If not them, what about the families they come home to and the extended families that are being put at risk? Anyone showing symptoms must isolate, and we as a company will do all we can to support them and their families during that time to allow them to stay at home.”

What Have We Learned?
Realizing that the situation is very fluid and changing by the minute, we asked AWCI members to share any lessons learned: what to do or not do; what to change in terms of planning and activities to better cope with any similar future event.
    
We received many, detailed and thoughtful responses to this question—unfortunately more than space allows for.
    
Stan Kasper, president of The Rockwell Group in Illinois, says, “I don’t know how you prepare for something like this, but should something even remotely like it happen again, we would put a task force together, meet regularly, and pass on the information to all of our team members.”
    
“One thing we will look at is a way to have more people work from home in case of an emergency (fire, flood, earthquake or another virus outbreak),” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at the Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. “That means buying computers, printers and setting up the necessary communication lines between the office servers and the home computers.”
    
Norman Kay answered, “The main thing is to be prepared for this by stocking up on the required supplies, and keep calm and focused on being healthy and avoiding close contact with others. We just try to do our best to work safely, keep clean and, for me, the most important thing is prayer, being thankful and grateful.”
    
Heering is optimistic: “As the situation currently stands, we would not make any changes to our response. There are very uncertain times ahead, but we feel we are well positioned to make it through this season and come out even stronger due to the great employees we have.”
    
Kruse shares a lesson learned: “I have been flippant with our company’s finances. This pandemic has been sobering. I have over 50 families relying on us to provide for them. I need to make sure our company is financially sound to weather an event like this without having to tell people we can no longer pay them. As a responsible business owner, my goal is to have six months of core expenses in an account to carry us for a substantial amount of time. We have worked hard to get the right people on our bus, and I don’t want to have to get rid of them because I was financially careless.”
    
One factor stood out clearly in the responses to the questions: the care and concern on the part of AWCI member contractors for their employees and their employees’ families. This became apparent as a priority in most of the responses received.
    
With people like this at the helm of the companies involved, there is a good chance we will pull through this pandemic and rise stronger and more successful than ever.

David C. Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer, is an original founding partner at Words & Images.