The New Norm for Public Works: Shifting Routines and Social Distancing

Public works employees are among the heroes of the COVID-19 global crisis. These workers in orange vests manage our electrical, water/sewer, roads and other services that are critical to maintaining our quality of life.

With today’s social distancing requirements, it is anything but business as usual for these crews as they adjust to this pandemic along with the rest of us. These departments are pivoting to come up with new plans to get the work done by leveraging a positive consequence of stay-at-home directives: less traffic.

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Traffic is a dangerous distraction at best on most right-of-way projects: filling potholes, accessing water/sewer manholes and traffic signal maintenance. These are just a few of the jobs that require a little more effort and attention to worker safety. With recent reductions in traffic volume, the goal of keeping motor vehicles separate from work crews has become a bit easier.

The flip side of this advantage is the need to adhere to CDC recommendations on social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Communication and Training Challenges

The “shoulder-tap” method of getting a crew member’s attention is no longer possible with social distancing guidelines. Even then, it requires removing hearing protection and yelling within a few feet of each other in order to be heard in the high-noise environments workers face every day.

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workers practicing social distancing

The “shoulder-tap” method of getting a crew member’s attention is no longer possible with social distancing guidelines.

The same problems that inhibit job site conversations make on-the-job training for new employees and trainers an exercise in frustration. Noise and distractions force trainers to repeat instructions frequently. As a result, trainees may ask fewer questions due to the difficult circumstances. So, how can crews restore effective team communication, maintain productivity and train employees without violating CDC recommendations for social distancing?

Complying with Social Distancing and Keeping Everyone Healthy

Any work activity taking place this day and age, of course, must happen in accordance with local guidelines and adherence to CDC’s social distancing and other directives.

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Common practices crews are implementing include arranging night shifts and other non-peak times to lessen the impact on commutes. Setting up work zones with traffic control in mind is another common approach. Right now, fewer cars equal less disruption — for drivers and for workers.

Here are some other changes being implemented:

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  • Staggering individual start times so not everyone shows up to the shop at the same time.

  • Dispatching crews in separate vehicles; often coming directly from their own doorstep and meeting at the job site.

  • Ongoing regimens of disinfecting common areas like tool cages and equipment sheds.

  • Placing portable handwashing stations near the entrances and exits to buildings and garages.

Leveraging the Right Communication Tools Keeps Things Moving

When the work requires collaboration and coordination, teams are finding that the use of communication headsets to enable normal conversations helps minimize safety concerns. Even when environmental noise is high, you can easily converse by speaking as you would in a normal conversation. No need to yell or get someone’s attention by getting too close. Also, if you are pulling personnel from other departments to backfill a position or two, headsets allow for quick questions and feedback between a veteran and someone who’s not as familiar with the work.

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Effective Team Communication at Social Distance

Wireless communication headsets enable natural conversation at a safe distance by combining conference call-like communication and hands-free operation with advanced hearing protection.

Crew members can hear each other clearly even in high noise, which eliminates the need for face-to-face communication. Now everyone can safely maintain social distance while continuing to collaborate and communicate as the work continues.

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Contracting crews use wireless headsets

Contracting crews use wireless headsets to improve communication, protect hearing, and increase productivity in high-noise environments.

How Wireless Communication Works

Wireless headsets for teams convey a number of immediate benefits for public works crews:

  • Removes the need for face-to-face conversation while maintaining team communication and collaboration.

  • Minimizes the risk of communication errors from crew members concerned about maintaining distance in high-noise environments.

  • Quick deployment avoids work stoppages and ensures that employers remain in compliance with health requirements.

  • Accelerates training by maintaining a “lifeline” of continuous communication between trainees and supervisors.

  • Higher productivity is realized when instructions are delivered clearly, and questions are answered directly in real-time.

Creative planning and a solid effort to comply with CDC guidelines and safety regulations is allowing public works teams to stay on track and stay safe on the job. Public works crews use wireless headsets to improve communication, protect hearing, and increase productivity in high-noise environments.

Ben Wager is an application specialist with Sonetics Corp.

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