COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges to the construction industry. When the construction industry was deemed “essential,” we were abruptly confronted with the task of keeping our employees safe against a hazard that was largely unknown, with rules that were continually changing.
Much of this responsibility was placed on the safety departments and safety professionals of which I am proud to be a part of.
Trying to gather as much information as possible on the virus, while obtaining reliable information, was a struggle. Early on, the Association for General Contractors of America (AGC) produced outstanding information and guidance to the construction industry, including templates for “Essential Worker” letters, hence becoming a major reference source. Our first company meeting on the virus was held on Feb. 27 and on that date, there were no fatalities. It seems so long ago.
After gaining information on the virus, we found that obtaining supplies and PPE was going to be significantly harder. The disposable respirators we depend on for our work were gone; hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes became a commodity. To receive any masks, they had to be purchased in huge bulks at an inflated price. Eventually, we acquired the supplies needed, built response kits in the event of a positive COVID test, and distributed supplies of masks, thermometers and hand sanitizer to each foreman for their crews.
Actions and policies were implemented amidst these trying times. During the first week of March, several office employees were becoming nervous. We rushed to buy additional docking stations, monitors, and office equipment; by the end of the week, 70 percent of our office staff were capable of working remotely and were doing so. As most companies did, we had associates sharing hotel rooms. Policy changes were made so that each worker could have his own room.
A significant concern was knowing that an associate might work even though he or she was sick. We realize that employees do so because they cannot afford to lose a day or two of pay. To discourage workers from doing so, we removed the need. If someone called to say he or she was sick, we had them stay home or in the hotel while we continued to pay them as if they were working. If they were placed on quarantine, we did the same. We got the message out: “If you are sick, do not go to work!” Laborers and operators were to inform their foreman and contact the safety department if feeling ill. Since we work across the country, Midwest Mole made a pact with our associates that if you are sick, wherever you are, we would get you home quickly so you can be cared for near your family. This provided much needed comfort to our associates and their families.
Classroom training was redeveloped to include smaller class sizes in redesigned settings. Sign-in sheets were eliminated and have been replaced with pictures of the trainees or classes. Social distancing was implemented into all meetings. Most office staff have since returned to the office, while still having the option to work from home. With the reduction in flights, traveling by air requires greater planning and additional time. Unscheduled visits to the office by salespeople were eliminated at the onset of the pandemic and are unlikely to return for the foreseeable future. Respirators and most PPE supplies are once again becoming available; although, Pulmonary Function Tests are still unable to be performed.
It has now been eight months since the pandemic began. So where is the construction industry today? There are still many questions about the virus that need to be answered. But through these trials we have learned several things and we have realized what works:
We know that being outdoors is a major factor in limiting exposure to COVID-19.
We know that wearing face masks limits the spread of the virus. We also know that wearing face masks while working with your crew is not as important as wearing face masks when in public meetings or engaging with people outside your crew.
We know that the policy of not going to work if you are sick, most importantly eliminating the necessity to go to work sick, is effective.
We know that ultimately we can only be successful in keeping our crews safe by putting aside personal or political beliefs regarding this virus and working together in unison.