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Now that moratoriums on nonessential construction have been lifted across the country, contractors are getting back to work with new protocols and provisions in place. From tool sanitization, hand-washing stations, staggered work schedules and mandatory face coverings, an emphasis on clean and healthy jobsites is driving a new way of building.

This heightened focus on employee health has led many construction firms to turn to medical professionals for guidance on the ever-changing best practices surrounding coronavirus infection control. Companies have hired outside medical consultants or retrained existing health and safety personnel to be ready to respond to the latest COVID-19 research and prevention. 

For instance, in the San Francisco area, STO Building Group managers have hired an industrial hygienist to set up infection prevention protocols. In other parts of the country, they have brought EMTs and nurses onto jobsites to complete temperature screenings of workers, while other sites have automated screening stations.

Leaders at Birmingham, Alabama-based Brasfield & Gorrie turned to their local university for help in protecting the company’s more than 3,000 employees. The contractor consulted with two infectious disease experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham on the right practices and protocols for their jobsites, said Troy Ogden, vice president of safety and field operations support. 

The company’s COVID-19 Response Team used their advice to develop infection control practices across all jobsites: more intense cleaning, on-site hand-washing stations, changes in food vendor protocols, breathable face coverings and contact tracing of infected personnel. 

“In addition to providing input on our safety plan and response protocols,” Ogden added, “our medical advisors offer insight to address questions … and evaluate trends and developments across our footprint. Our CRT continues to meet regularly with our medical advisors to update plans as needed in this fluid situation.”

More than just wellness

Jim Goss, senior safety consultant at HCSS, a construction software development company, said he knows of several large firms that have hired or plan to hire health care providers trained in pandemic preparedness while smaller companies typically have added full-time safety officers on jobs. But, he added, filling these positions can be difficult because of staffing shortages in both the healthcare and construction fields. 

“In addition to the challenge of finding a healthcare professional familiar with construction issues, safety now covers more areas of employee wellness,” Goss said. “We’ve gone from an attitude of ‘toughen up and work’ to ‘please stay home.’ It’s really hard for some. But people are our industry’s biggest commodity and we already don’t have enough of them. We need to protect them from disease and injury.”

The reliance on medical expertise extends from the jobsite to corporate offices, where Structure Tone uses automated temperature checking stations, barriers between open offices, staggered start times and a rotation schedule to keep office workers healthy, according to Keith Haselman, senior vice president, corporate safety for commercial construction at STO. Managers also redesigned the flow of offices to one way, handed out personal lunch kits and installed clear Silver Defender virus-killing tape on door handles, coffee stations and copy machines.

Spreading the word

Haselman said staying on top of the coronavirus crisis is all about information, communication and employee buy-in.

“I’m watching the latest guidance constantly, holding weekly virtual meetings with reps around the country plus Canada and the United Kingdom,” he said. “Our six task forces for excellence and innovation now focus primarily on pandemic safety issues, including project shutdown protocols, design team responses, cost impact, supply chain, legal contracts and project safety. Then we make sure communication moves out quickly and smoothly companywide.”

As medical guidance changes, STO is focusing on getting everyone from employees in the New York City headquarters to jobsites large and small updated on safety procedures. The firm’s marketing team makes videos showing people how to properly access jobsites and offices, as well as guidance protocols to follow once there. They also developed training videos on distancing, cleaning and sanitation.

“Our site protocols center around getting buy-in from every employee, subcontractor and tradesperson,” he said. “Our existing Safety 360 program gives employees ownership of preventing injury and now infection.”

Haselman said it works by letting each team figure out solutions.

“We ask open-ended questions, like ‘As the weather gets hotter how do we make wearing masks bearable?’” he said. “Answers range from using light material and comfortable ear connections to bringing extra air flow systems and cold drinking water to sites. If they come up with the plans you’ve already got their buy-in.” 

Upping the pace of innovation

Carl W. Heinlein, senior safety consultant for the American Contractors Insurance Group (ACIG) and board member for the American Society of Safety Professionals, works with 37 general contractors nationwide. ACIG has a medical advisor who creates overall guidance for them.

Heinlein said that contractors’ commitment during the early days of the pandemic to ensuring healthy jobsites and offices is paying off now that construction work is ramping back up. New protocols are leading to rapid innovation, he said, adding that many firms have expanded their use of technology to reduce in-person contact, automate cleaning and stagger schedules.

“I’ve seen the use of overnight sanitation sheds/boxes for tools, virtual medical stations for temperature checks, using drones to scan temperatures, digital tracking to identify places needing more intense cleaning and scheduling shifts or crews to spread them out,” he said. “I am proud of the construction industry and our workforce and how they adapted safely to the challenges of the pandemic.”

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