Continuing Safely

Construction continues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Classified as essential workers, construction workers followed new guidelines for screening, distancing, masking and cleaning. They adapted to work environments altered to meet new safety requirements. Now, a year and a half after the pandemic started, vaccines are being rolled out and safety guidelines for construction sites and other places are being adjusted. Some safety practices construction companies started in response to the pandemic continue, while others have lessened or ceased. Some safety practices may continue to be applied indefinitely.

Some safety practices on job sites that started because of the pandemic might stay

By Christopher Brinckerhoff

Photo courtesy of Messer Construction

In fact, in Metal Construction News’ post-pandemic survey in June, among contractors and suppliers, 56.9% of respondents said they think in five years there will still be hand washing and other hygienic procedures on job sites, in offices and on shop floors that began in response to COVID-19. Also notable is 40.1% of respondents said they don’t expect any practices related to hand washing and hygiene, social distancing, mask requirements or temperature checks to continue in five years. Some respondents did expect social distancing (8.6%), temperature checks (7.5%) and mask requirements (5.1%) to continue to some extent.

Loosening Restrictions

Sure Steel Inc. in Salt Lake City, an erector, has been implementing and following new safety protocols on job sites throughout the pandemic. Daniel Miller, senior vice president at Sure Steel, says the company follows the most stringent safety guidelines among those given by general contractors and project owners they work with, or applicable municipal policies. Recently, some safety restrictions related to the pandemic have begun to loosen, he says.

“We’re going to follow the most stringent policy. If that is left to us to self-determine in our spaces, then our policy has become just like the CDC. If you can socially distance, you can remove the mask. If you are vaccinated, you can remove your mask.”

Other pandemic-related safety practices that have ceased, with rare exception, a few months ago for Sure Steel include morning screenings with questionnaires and temperature checks, Miller says. “Questionnaires in some cases, a site might do that, along with temperature screenings. As a company, we are not. We stopped doing that several months ago as we followed other jurisdictions removing those requirements. We felt in agreement with that and did so ourselves.”

An erection crew installs metal wall panels on a pre-engineered metal building church in the Washington, D.C. area in February. Masks were required on the job site. Photo: Craig Shaffer

COVID Reporting and Masks

A COVID reporting program, mask supply program and safety practices started for the pandemic by the Iron Workers International will continue indefinitely, says Steven Rank, executive director of safety and health at the Washington, D.C.-based union.

“Our safe practices to prevent any spread of COVID-19 will continue as long as the virus exists,” Rank says. “That includes the notification form, personal protective equipment, safe practices of social distancing, compliance with any project or owner mandates of how they want us to protect ourselves in their workplace; all these things we will continue to comply with as long as the virus exists.”

The Iron Workers’ reporting program includes an editable PDF, email address and phone number. Rank explains, “Since the pandemic started, we have initiated many programs to help our members and contractors as the pandemic evolves. The first thing our organization did was establish an electronic notification form so that we would be immediately notified if any member contracts COVID-19, so it allows us to better provide them information to protect themselves at work and at home. Also, it allows us to do contact tracing to identify other members who are working with them in the workplace.”

In terms of masks, Rank says, “The second initiative we took was we established a North America partnership with the 3M Corp. We have purchased many thousands of N-95 respirators. The notification form will continue, our safe practices will continue, our PPE, providing masks upon availability, will continue.”

Photo courtesy of Western Specialty Contractors

Cleaning Habits

Safety practices that persist include cleaning procedures. “There are still house cleaning policies,” Miller says. “We have to make sure that we maintain frequent cleaning of high-frequency touch zones; I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. And making sure we provide the right supplies for that, that’s a standard now, the hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes.”

Another contractor, Empire Roofing Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, is also going through the process of adjusting safety practices as restrictions decrease broadly. Terry Linke, office manager at Empire Roofing, says, “The pandemic taught us several very valuable lessons; many of which we have adopted as permanent practice and procedures. Our attention to ongoing sanitation has picked up. Although we routinely cleaned, we pay much more attention to detail and sanitize more frequently. We are cleaning all tools and equipment: brakes machines, shear machines, T-panel and C-lock rollformers, trucks, etc., whether in the shop or on job sites. We implemented wash stations at all job sites at the beginning of pandemic and will continue with these as well as keeping everything sanitized on a much more frequent basis.”

Greater availability of cleaning supplies compared to last year will make it easier for companies to continue sanitation practices, particularly during cold and flu season, says Craig Shaffer, CSP, president of SafetyWorks Inc. in Dillsburg, Pa.

“I think coming up on this winter, it will be much easier to get disinfecting wipes. When those things were impossible to get, there were a lot of companies that were using a bleach/water solution or an isopropyl alcohol solution.”

Shared tools including SDS drills, core drills, demo saws, can continue to be sanitized in between users, Shaffer says. “And it can extend to equipment people drive like a forklift or a skid-steer loader, an aerial lift or a scissor lift. I think the supplies will be available on a number of jobs. I don’t know that it will be widespread, but I think some more forward-thinking companies will make those supplies available. Then there’s a big leap between things that are available and people actually using them.”

Masking and Distancing

In terms of social distancing, Miller says large morning meetings on job sites with hundreds of workers were broken up into smaller groups. That practice has not fully returned to the pre-pandemic norm with meetings with large group meetings.

“It’s still not back to what it was because social distancing is still necessary, so you have to have a big enough space for that, but I think we’re getting close to having that back to normal,” Miller says. “It could be outdoors, sure, but indoor spaces, no.”

In terms of masks and distancing, Linke says, “We all adhered to the mask mandate, but as more and more are vaccinated, that is not as prevalent. Job-site social distancing has been less lately, but awareness of one’s space is more predominant. We’re using the same amount of employees working, but using strategy with the number of crew in some areas.”

It’s possible wearing masks might be more socially acceptable on job sites than it was before the pandemic, Shaffer says. “Before all this, if you wore a mask to work because you didn’t want the flu or something, you basically would be called names. But it’s different now. Now we’ve been going on about a year with masks being an important part of safety, we had a deadly pandemic sweep through the country, and masks, even right now after so much time of having vaccines available, are still important to some people. Going forward, if someone decides they want to wear a mask to work, some people are going to have their opinions, but by and large I don’t think it will be as awkward as it may have been in the past. I think people will be more likely, especially in wintertime, if they don’t want the flu. They may decide, I’m working in a room right now with six other folks that are on different crews and I don’t want to get sick, and they might wear a mask. I don’t think it will be widespread, but I think there will be more of a willingness for people to do that without fear of social unacceptance.”

Another safety practice that may have enduring effects on the construction industry is a greater willingness to allow sick workers to stay home, Shaffer says. “I think employers and supervisors are going to be a little more flexible with that. In the past, it was get to work unless you’re on your death bed. And I think in the post-pandemic world, at least for a little while here, if somebody’s not feeling well, and they don’t want to come to work, some employers may be more likely to say, ‘OK, stay at home; don’t come back until you feel better.’ I just think that will be a little more of an accepted practice, just my gut feeling.”