Construction workers grapple with social distancing
Construction workers have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to personal protective equipment.
Signs mandating hard hats, boots, high-visibility vests, and protective eyewear have been effective for decades. Every large site has a designated safety officer who makes sure workers are not backing into each other, walking under dangerous loads or operating tools without concern for injury.
However, such workers have also traditionally worked in close proximity, crawling into tight spaces, sharing tools, carpooling, and sitting anywhere flat to each lunch together.
With the reality sinking in that social distancing is the most effective way to stifle the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (and get the country back to work), one of the largest construction worker associations held a nationwide coronavirus safety stand-down on Thursday, April 9.
Associated General Contractors of America is a association comprised of union contractors, non-union contractors, vendors and associates. Its workers stopped work gathered to hear their superintendents read aloud rules on how to maintain a 6-foot distance between themselves, and also how to combat fear and anxiety, especially of their families.
In Oregon City, at the site of the Robert Libke Public Safety Facility at 1232 Linn Avenue, Rick McMurry,Chief Safety Officerat P&C Construction, rallied the workers at 11.50 a.m. for what would once have been a huddle, but was now a scattering. The site usually has between 30 and 50 workers a day, and the project is due to be completed in September 2020.
McMurry spoke first, asking questions to engage the men. (They were all men, and only one wore a mask, a bandana.) He asked who had a wife at home who was stressed out. There were some chuckles, and a couple of hands went up.
McMurry talked about depression and anxiety, warned about the increasing use of alcohol and drugs. He recommended mediation and not watching too much news and social media.
"I know one guy whose wife has a little bit of a compromised immune system. I go 'Hey, how's your wife?' She makes him strip down pretty much naked on the front porch and she gives him a new set of clothes before he goes in to shower."
McMurry talked of his own 14-year-old daughter who was terrified of COVID-19, but now that she is home from school, he noticed she is less anxious and better informed of the risks.
One worker shouted out that he'd had more contact with his kids in Utah and in Florida than he has had in years, thanks to Facetime.
Hygiene as safety
Job sites always have portapotties and plastic handwashing stations with two sinks operated by a foot pump. Now the workers have to be reminded to wait for the other sink to be clear before moving in, which takes the long, spread-out line twice as long to move.
Arrival times have not been staggered. There's no need.
"They roll in about seven o'clock, but as soon as they get out of their cars, they just start the six feet thing."
McMurry said the building trade was quick to catch on. And they were, compared to other essential jobs, such as Portland supermarket workers who, only on April 10, were given masks. The AGC launched its social distancing program on Friday, the 13th of March.
"All the local agency contractors were on board with having private programs in place right off the bat. And so it's been like this really from the beginning."
The Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) fielded more than 1,100 complaints about coronavirus issues in the last week of March. The complaints covered all industries — not just construction. The agency stepped-up inspections.
McMurry, the safety officer, said the hardest part is trying not to trade stack. That's when different trades work in the same space at the same time.
"Normally, you'll have a work area that has electricians, plumbers, HVAC people, and we're basically keeping them separated and not having them work over the top of each other."
Chris Shultz was a site superintendent but is now a full-time social distancing expert. It's his job to help them come up with new tactics. For example, instead of two people lifting a heavy object together, such as a piece of duct, one will do it with a lift.
Coolers and carpools
Lunch breaks have been fine. Most crews are under 10 people, and they maintain the six-foot separation as they eat.
"Early on, when we put the social distancing in place, nobody was thinking about how they were getting here. So, they were rolling up in cars in pairs of two, which they've done their entire careers, carpooling, saving money, and we were like, 'Wait a minute.'"
Now they are only allowed to carpool if they live together.
"If they show up, we send them out. And they're not allowed to come back to our job site for a day. We had a sheetrock delivery a couple of weeks ago, and we basically sent them out of here with 600 sheets of sheetrock, and they had to come back the next day with different workers."
Everything is wiped down multiple times a day, from computers to fire extinguishers to handrails.
Inside the trailer, there is tape on the floor marking the social distance. Doors at each end are unlocked to they can exit rather than squeeze by each other. The project engineer is now working from home, which cuts down on the traffic in the trailers too.
Social distancing is easier for steelworkers and people pouring foundations in the fresh air, but once the watertight shell of a building is up, it gets much harder.
These days, few workers like to carry around paper plans — especially on wet days. Now they consult tablets and pull up documents on the Procore construction management software. But McMurry noticed they were huddling very close to see details on an iPad, easily breaking the six-foot rule.
To that end, the company last week introduced a rolling cart that holds a 42-inch screen and computer. This way, subs can study plans while standing well back and apart.
To keep people apart the project manager and superintendent have been moving electricians from what they call Zone A to zone B, and vice versa. "Some areas that weren't scheduled to get done are getting done a little sooner," said Brad Esler, proeject manager.
If a sub thinks they need to work closely with someone, they must first see Brad or Chris, to see if the work can be rescheduled.
"As a last resort, if we can't, then we've got masks and all kinds of stuff, but that's very rare at this point."
The CDC's recommendation that people wear masks in public only came down the day before the Business Tribune toured the site, which might explain why only one person wore one. "PPE is what we do every day, the safety glasses, hard hats, gloves, boots. We're used to it. So, I think for construction workers it's kind of a natural. Some companies like ours require 100% gloves and glasses all the time for everybody when they're on the jobsite," said Esler.
Chris Schultz added, "Construction's a pretty tight community. We're used to kind of shuffling around and being close to each other." He said it took a few days for people to learn to self-distance at all times.
"Now very seldom do I even see anybody that's getting anywhere near six feet, they're all doing a good job. Walking down corridors is a big problem, being only six feet wide. So, you see guys are stepping into a doorway."
They have had no COVID-19 cases on this job. People with flu-like symptoms are sent home for seven days. If they just have allergies, it's usually 72 hours.
The crisis management protocol says that if they have an actual case, they would shut the job down and inform the owners and all the subcontractors.
"And then we'll leave it up to them to manage their personnel," said Esler. "Then we'd sanitize the entire job will probably stay down for two to three days anyway just to make sure any germs die. And we'll reassess and then open it back up."
Within the building, they do warn people for getting too close, then write them up, then send them home if it happens a third time.
Schultz said, "The point is to let everyone know that it is serious, and if they don't want to follow the rules, then they can go sit at home until this is over."
When this is over, there will be better habits.
"I think they're going to take better care of sanitizing, when they use a restroom or whatever. This is affecting everybody. This is the first pandemic in my lifetime. Yeah. And sometimes things just don't hit home until you're affected by it, and your family and loved ones," said Schultz.
Staying on the job
In early April 2020, AGC officials could see how quickly construction market conditions had deteriorated. More than a quarter of construction firms responding to their online survey reported they had furloughed or terminated jobsite workers because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The fact that unemployment has increased by 16 million in the last three weeks is on everyone's mind. Anyone with a construction job through September is looking to hold on to it.
McMurry said, "It's the only way we can keep working. We have no choice. We either do this or we go home. In the trades, we're always susceptible to the weather. So, every day that you can work and put food on the table and pay the bills, that's good. You want to be out there working."
The Center for Disease Control guidelines is now overlaid on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's stringent rules.
The goal was to reinforce the new safety procedures and practices that all construction workers must follow to protect themselves and the public from the spread of the coronavirus.
The Associated General Contractors has created three different "toolbox talks" that outline steps published by public health and safety officials to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They cover issues like socially distancing while working and on break, the need for frequent handwashing, restrictions on tool sharing, and the need to disinfect high-touch areas frequently.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.