Coronavirus necessitates changes at construction sites
When Joseph Hughes Construction (JHC) discovered that one of their subcontractors had potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, the company's leaders immediately shut down the job site.
Within 90 minutes of the shutdown, the employees working there were tested, and a local company had been hired to sanitize the job site.
Joe Hughes, president and founder, and Vice President Tom Rue, co-owners of the mid-sized contracting company, said they were relieved when all of their employees and the subcontractor's tests were negative. The job site did not reopen until all of the test results were received, and the experience reinforced that they had done the right thing by requiring all job site workers to be screened as part of their COVID-19 protocols.
Portland construction companies, ranging from a few dozen employees to hundreds, faced a steep learning curve when the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the Pacific Northwest. As social distancing, handwashing and other measures needed to be quickly implemented, several construction companies responded by drafting coronavirus-related protocols and changes to job sites while managing delays in construction schedules and potentially higher project costs to keep their employees and clients safe.
Starting in March, at Governor Kate Brown's initial recommendation, JHC began requiring employees to wear masks and gloves on job sites. The company drafted COVID-19 exposure prevention and response protocols to comply with Washington's stringent standards. Though most of its projects are in Portland, JHC requested a review of its protocols from a Vancouver building inspector because Washington's standards for construction sites during the pandemic are more strict than Oregon's.
Hughes and Rue said JHC installed social distancing and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) signage on its job sites and its workers wear full personal protective equipment. It also implemented a screening checklist broken into four parts and 16 separate COVID-related topics that its superintendent addresses daily. The checklist includes training leaders on how to spot and prevent the spread of infection and sharing real-time public health communication with workers. During daily safety meetings, each worker's temperature is checked, and the superintendent conducts a verbal roll call. People attending the meetings do not share pens, paperwork or other items.
Similar measures have been taken by Hoffman Construction Co. Vice President Dan Drinkward said that the health and safety of its workers were paramount before COVID-19, and the steps they have taken to protect them during the pandemic "is not business as usual."
"We've made dramatic changes to make sure our workers are safe in this new environment. I'm really proud of our project teams and partners about how nimble they've been to make these changes so quickly," he said.
Drinkward said the measures vary by job site because the challenges of social distancing are different on an apartment building project compared to a site clearing. They also vary by state because of differing recommendations and regulations in the various locations Hoffman operates. In Oregon, each of the company's superintendents is responsible for maintaining social distancing among the project team and promoting messaging about hygiene to keep job sites safe.
"This is really about changing behavior, and what we've found is that it takes constant reinforcement to do that," he said, adding custom-built handwashing stations with soap and hot water have been installed at all job sites. The handwashing stations and porta-potties are equipped with foot hardware, so workers don't have to touch them with their hands.
Along with signage reminding people to keep their distance, superintendents begin each day with a plan to ensure workers have more space. These include changing the way job sites are configured so fewer workers are in areas such as stairways, man lifts, and elevators. The reconfigurations utilize one-way traffic through those areas. Hoffman also has eliminated large weekly safety meetings in favor of distributing information through smaller groups.
"Another interesting thing we've done is implement telemedicine for all of our workers," Drinkward said. So if someone has COVID-19 symptoms, another health issue, or a minor injury on the job site, they can see a health care provider electronically rather than going to a clinic.
Hoffman conducts screenings at the entrance of every job site. If someone has coronavirus symptoms or has been exposed to someone who has tested positive or traveled internationally, they are not allowed on the job site. When possible, the company staggers starting times, so people aren't taking breaks and lunches at the same time. On some sites, it replaced office trailers with individual pods that Drinkward likened to half of a shipping container with an air conditioning unit inserted into a window.
"We've invented some new tools and increased the use of robotics to lift heavy materials on some work that previously would have been difficult to do while maintaining social distance," he said. "I'm just extremely proud of the work our people have done and continue to do, and I think they deserve a lot of credit."
Drinkward noted an "unprecedented level of cooperation" among competitors, unions, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), and others to figure out how to operate construction sites safely. "That effort has been a tremendous success."
In April, Oregon Tradeswomen announced the formation of the COVID-19 Joint Construction Safety Task Force, established to help contractors follow current guidelines and protect workers while continuing to do business. The advisory group includes representatives from the building trade unions, industry partners, management and employers, meets online, and assisted by Oregon OSHA consultants. Some members visit job sites across the state.
The council's members monitor the most current health information and government guidelines and collect data and information about best job site practices. They then share the data and information with contractors and workers.
"The safety of the people who are out there working on construction sites is our highest priority," Robert Camarillo, executive secretary for the Oregon State Building Trades Council, said in a press release. "With this task force, our goal is to improve job safety and increase educational resources during an incredibly challenging time."
Mark Long, CEO of Oregon Home Builders Association, said the construction community recognizes the need to work together to project workers, the public and people visiting job sites. "It is gratifying to be part of a group of industry professionals committed to bending the curve on the COVID virus while contributing to Oregon's economy."
Cordell Tietz, president of Charter Mechanical, noted that Charter depends on the skilled pipe-fitters and plumbers working on its project sites and fab shops. "It is critical that we have a safe environment for our employees, so they can continue to take care of our customers' needs. This crisis has presented new challenges to all of us, and it's been important and rewarding seeing our industry come together to keep people working safety and completing critical projects."
The COVID-19 Joint Construction Safety Task Force is comprised of nearly 20 union and non-union industry associations, companies and other organizations.
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