Safety after COVID-19
Which new safety measures will remain after the pandemic?
David C Phillips / June 2021
Safety has certainly taken a center stage position in the construction industry since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic over a year ago. Contractors generally have done a remarkable job of keeping their businesses going and construction alive while many other industries have had to shut down or go on life support. This has involved putting in place an array of safety and hygiene measures following fast-changing and sometimes confusing guidelines from federal, state and local governments.
In this article we take a close look at what measures have been instituted specifically because of the pandemic and how many of these will remain in place after the pandemic ceases to play such a prominent role in our lives.
John Hinson, division president at Marek in Coppell, Texas, points out that “one thing to note industry-wide is that the pandemic’s impact on our overall safety behavior has been positive. It appears the additional scrutiny from our general contracting partners helped improve all trades’ performance on job sites and benefited those of us who put our team’s safety first.”
We first asked AWCI member contractors what safety procedures and processes they have implemented to deal with COVID-19.
Dan Lilly, vice president and COO of Erik Stark Interiors in San Jose, Calif., summarized the measures his company has taken and that are common to most contractors: “We use COVID-19 testing, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, social distancing, sanitizing of tools and equipment and COVID screening before entering office/job sites, contact tracing potential and confirmed COVID cases.”
Mike Haller, safety director of Gallegos Corp in Colorado, stresses virtual meetings: “We now distribute weekly toolbox training talks via email to each foreman. These safety talks are then emailed back to the safety director for training tracking and entered into a monthly safety drawing. Since moving to virtual safety committee meetings in March 2020, we have increased attendance from eight to 10 employees to as many as 30-35 employees.”
“Very early in the pandemic we formed a COVID-19 task force to research, guide and set up protocols for our company,” state Dan Vandenburg, safety manager, and Jason Gordon, president and CEO at Heartland Acoustics and Interiors, Inc. in Colorado. “Following CDC recommendations, we created safety plans for both our office and our field employees, including a health-screening form, which we required our employees to submit daily. The form allowed us to track employees who were or may have been exposed to the virus and assist them. It was also provided to our clients when requested. We found that most general contractors have implemented their own screening forms and health check-ins, so we also followed their protocols when on site.”
Jorge Vazquez, in charge of safety at Marek in Houston, detailed all the procedures implemented at Marek. This is the short list:
- “Access to offices and job sites is limited to essential personnel only.
- Business meetings with third parties are conducted via phone or videoconference.
- Business travel is suspended and employees are encouraged to avoid all travel out of the area. Employees who travel have to self-quarantine for 14 days.
- Disinfecting protocols were established for office and field.
- New communication methods were deployed using technology.
- Training is via video conferences and different platforms to help business continuity.
- Conference rooms are closed, or a limited number of people are allowed in the room.
- Plexiglas barriers are used in areas of frequent traffic, e.g., reception, applicant rooms.
- All Marek locations were asked to send office employees to work from home; a 30% capacity was allowed for those who had to run the warehouse, maintenance and mail runs.”
AWCI Vice President Shawn Burnum, vice president of operations at Performance Contracting Group in Grandview, Mo., explains, “Among other measures, we increased our electronic audits and added features to assess compliance with the new COVID-19 protocols. We helped produce a video to train our employees on COVID-19 precautions and new procedures in the field, and then shared this with the industry. We worked to ensure our folks felt comfortable and also increased our communications.”
Brian McMuldren, safety director at WPI in Wilsonville, Ore., mentions, among other measures implemented, some safety procedures specific to drywall:
- “Mechanized installation of material.
- Use of suction cup machines for wall-cladding panels.
- More use of drywall panel lifts.
- Barriers in equipment and vehicles to allow work processes to continue.”
“For our office, we have a designated crew that does nothing but clean and disinfect our facility all day, every day,” says Ron Karp, principal, Advance Masonry Systems/Advanced Drywall Systems in Florida. “Our office area can only be accessed if you are ‘buzzed in’ through our electronically locked door. For anyone who tests positive, we are requiring two negative tests before returning to our office or job sites.”
Adam Barbee, estimator/project manager at Daley’s Drywall & Taping in Campbell, Calif., says, “Training and education are key. We have drawn up a complete map of safety measures, starting at the beginning of our working day, through our full range of operations and including activities in our normal daily lives outside work.”
We then wanted to know which of these procedures/processes are likely to remain in place when the pandemic is over, and why.
Lilly says, “Social distancing, and I believe some employees, will still wish to wear masks. We have grown accustomed to making sure we have our own working area and are keeping ourselves socially distanced from those around us. Some employees will still be nervous about the germs around them and will wear masks as a precaution.”
“We plan to continue to have the Heartland task force and although it may not meet specifically for COVID-19, we have learned better ways to understand and work through difficult situations,” state Vandenburg and Gordon. “The Heartland task force will carry on embracing the format of group involvement and participation. We have found that our group effort results in multiple viewpoints and comes up with better decisions than any one individual can. OSHA is the guiding and enforcing force behind safety and will always be present in our work environments.”
Vazquez expects some of the measures to continue, specifically disinfecting protocols, communication methods, virtual meetings and trainings and remote working. “The disinfecting protocols are likely to stay as a method of awareness and prevention,” he explains. “We have learned that much can be accomplished with technology. We were forced to meet via camera and the internet, and these communication platforms have paid off when expecting feedback and a quick response. Technology is here, and the ability to break distance barriers is a great business model. We no longer have to set up a room with chairs and materials for a class. Distance is no longer an obstacle or excuse for meetings for office and field employees.”
“I believe we have benefited from contractors socially distancing on site,” Burnum says. “This forced the trades to spread out and have enough work out in front of us to be efficient. I believe that makes us all safer and more productive.”
McMuldren predicts that a number of measures will remain in place at WPI: “Work from home in some capacity, part time for some, full time for others, even permitting a sick person to work from home without the risk of spreading illness. The shift to Kask construction helmets was already coming but was sped up because of the no-fogging advantage they provide over traditional safety glasses. Strategic use of virtual meetings and training has proved to be time efficient and an effective means of accomplishing certain tasks.”
“With the exception of social distancing and masks, most likely all the new measures will remain in place,” Karp believes. “Keeping the office clean and disinfected will help prevent reoccurring issues of this pandemic or any other that comes along. Limiting access to our facility will reduce the chance of future infections.”
“We do not believe it will be over for a while,” says Bill Fritz, president of Mission Interiors Contracting LLC in Texas, “so we will keep this same CDC protocols in effect in order to try to create the least chance of spread and still work.”
“We learn from the past to prepare better for the future,” Barbee says. “I think when things become more normal, there will be more flexibility for working remotely. We were forced into the work-from-home model, and it has been successful and profitable. I believe that with any future outbreak—including the common cold and the flu—there will be more awareness.”
Finally, we asked, “What overall, long-term change, as far as safety is concerned, do you see resulting from the pandemic in your company?”
Alexandra Shahan, risk manager at the California Drywall Company in San Jose, Calif., says, “One long-term change will be the lessons learned about how to manage the process as a whole. Pandemic planning wasn’t front and center on our radar before because none of us had ever experienced it in our lifetime. Now we have learned by living it, and we’ll be prepared for another pandemic in the future. The details of the next pandemic may be very different, but we will be able to hit the ground running with planning and implementation. Now we know the level of resilience it takes to thrive under rapid-fire evolution of guidance and legislation.”
“I think people will be more aware of the people around them and will tend to stay home when they are not feeling well instead of just trying to work through it,” predicts Lilly. “I also think people will be more concerned about safety and cleanliness.”
Vandenburg and Gordon say a good long-term change that came from the pandemic is the “ability of our company to meet the needs of our team members by working through challenges quickly and delivering solutions that impact them immediately.”
“Construction was deemed essential, so maybe there will be an increase of inexperienced employees joining the industry as it appears to be an uninterrupted business even when a pandemic is a threat,” Vazquez says.
McMuldren anticipates “more use of virtual meetings and training—these have proven to be more efficient for certain types of meetings and one-on-one training.”
Fritz says, “The only long-term changes I see happening are more cooperative use of masks, safety glasses and hand washing. As the construction industry is an essential group, I believe we will fare better than many others. By being out on projects, we have still interacted in a somewhat normal way. The mental-health benefits of this give us an advantage over many other industries.”
“As a company we will continue to invest in our education and preventive safety measures,” says Barbee. “From this, we will have gained a natural instinct ready to deploy when something arises again.”
Wrapping it up with some high praise for AWCI members and the industry as a whole, here is some insight from Burnum: “The construction industry reacted quickly and appreciated being deemed ‘critical’ in most areas. We acted responsibly as our industry is quick to adapt to ever-changing demands and unforeseen challenges. That is simply who we are and what we do for a living on any given day. COVID-19 allowed us to demonstrate that ability to others. I know of several owners who were surprised at how quickly we reacted to keep sites open and relatively safe.”
Let’s hope it’s over soon and that the valuable lessons learned provide some kind of silver lining.
David C Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer, is an original founding partner at Words & Images.