10 tips for operating construction sites during the COVID-19 pandemic
In the era of COVID-19, construction companies across America are trying to find the best way forward. 10 challenges every construction organization has to deal with are highlighted.
While everyone want your business to continue to operate and fulfill the needs of your clients, but employee health and well-being are still at the heart of everything you do. With the ever-changing executive orders and inconsistent data, and dealing with a risk that is new to the construction industry, we need to think differently about how we reduce the risk of COVID-19 to our construction teams. Consider these 10 tips for how best to manage a construction site for COVID-19 complications.
1. Determine your purpose and build a culture to support it
When we began this journey in January, it was clear that this pandemic would not only impact the health and well-being of our clients, subcontractors, and employees, but also the health of our industry and business. Our goal was to make sure everyone stayed healthy and employed—because the negative impact of losing a job is as real to our employees and their families as the virus itself.
So where do we start? With building a culture of trust.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, trust has emerged as one of the most important elements for success. A professional environment that fosters unity and trust enables the response plans and processes that protect employees and clients.
If people trust each other, they’ll speak up when needed and share information that could save you some major headaches—or even lives. And when everyone on your project team is committed to the well-being of their associates, they’re more likely to make safety-conscious decisions like:
- Staying home if unwell
- Reporting possible exposures immediately
- Practicing proper precautions because they do not want to risk exposing anyone else to the virus.
But the process of building that culture starts at the top. To be effective, leaders must engage the entire organization and support those in the field. Everyone needs to listen and also communicate their intentions, what they’re open to, and what they think will or will not work.
With everyone on the same page, you can create a consistent culture and site response plan to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure for your employees, trade partners, clients, and community. It’s the first step to keeping people safe and adhering to regulations.
2. Establish clear lines of communication
Communication is key to any construction company, now more than ever. You have to keep lines of communication open between your project management, trade partners, and clients. Here are some standards we recommend:
- Have every project site designate a primary communications representative to deliver all communications to the project team, trade partners, and client.
- Have each project site identify a back-up communications representative in the event the main communications representative is unavailable.
- Put up COVID-19 posters throughout the site.
- Mandate that all information shared must be from creditable and validated sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Department of Labor.
- Develop and implement the proper communications medium to share updated policies, procedures, and changes.
- Establish clear expectations on communication from subcontractors who were exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19.
- Require over-communication between your team, subcontractors, and the client if any person stays home sick for any reason.
- Mandate that site-wide communication is only sent by your primary or back-up communications representative.
- Stipulate that subcontractors and sub-tier subcontractors must not send mass communications to anyone who is not a direct employee of the subcontractor.
3. Have employees work from home as much as possible
Given the contagious nature of the virus, construction companies should reduce the number of people at any one location. This will curb the spread of COVID-19. Each project manager should determine which on-site personnel have job functions that can be completed offsite. Any person deemed not to be necessary on the site should work from home.
This protocol will allow all “site-necessary” workers the ability to practice social distancing and adhere to gathering limits.
4. Have a backup plan for all essential workers, materials, and equipment
Make sure that all project teams work with their organizations to identify backup personnel who could staff the project if a “site-necessary” person is not capable of coming to the site because of possible quarantine or because they were exposed to the virus outside of work.
You don’t want progress to stall because someone vital has become ill and you don’t have a plan B. What is the protocol for replacing staff or a critical path contractor if they are impacted by the virus?
Work with your procurement organizations to stay in continuous communication with equipment and material suppliers. You want to ensure that delivery dates are not impacted and that if they are, you know how to work around those challenges.
5. Abide by social distancing rules and limited gatherings
The U.S. federal government has set forth guidelines to help prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19. These include social distancing of at least six feet and limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people.
These regulations apply for:
- Work areas
- Break areas
All work areas, inside and out, must follow the social distancing requirements and limit the number of people in a space to 10 or fewer. You might make this easier by:
- Staggering shifts to reduce the number of workers
- Dividing areas into zones to limit workers in each zone
- Adding shifts to further separate work times
- Segregating break times and locations to keep crew separated during breaks.
Even when employees are on-site, use video or teleconferencing to conduct meetings. If meetings must be held in person, make sure they’re in a building big enough to facilitate six feet of separation, or consider holding it outside.
Break areas are subject to the same standards as any other location. You must maintain social distancing of at least six feet with no more than 10 people in an area.
Offices and trailers
To mitigate the risk of exposure to or transfer of COVID-19, consider further safety measures such as:
- Not having more than one person in each office
- Not allowing people to congregate in the main area
- Putting posters up to remind everyone of the guidelines
- Having sufficient cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer
- Posting the contact list in an easily accessible location.
If possible, designate entrance and exit locations to segregate different populations (i.e., client, subcontract partners, etc.).
6. Establish rules for travel, visitors, and deliveries
Travel is one of the most common factors causing the spread of COVID-19. Here are some standards to consider to mitigate exposure.
- Only permit travel deemed critical to business continuity and require management approval
- If team members are working out of state and have to travel home, consider:
- Can they reduce the frequency of their trips home?
- Is it possible to have their spouse come to them and stay?
- How can they limit their potential exposure when traveling to and from the site?
Vacation season is knocking at the door. It’s important that every construction company consider the effect this could have on the safety of their personnel and community. Talk to your employees and trade partners about the impact travel can have on spreading the virus. We recommend that management review all employees’ personal travel plans.
Also, anyone who travels internationally or to a “hot zone” in the United States should not be allowed on a worksite within 14 days after their return.
Bringing visitors to a site introduces too many unknown factors, which is asking for trouble. Consider restricting all visitors from worksites without the prior approval of the site project manager. Only essential/critical visitors should be allowed on site (including client visitors, as well).
Create a health questionnaire for potential visitors to submit prior to coming onsite, and set clear standards of what is a deal-breaker for a site visit.
Review all deliveries prior to their arrival to determine where the items are coming from. Set a plan in place for deliveries coming from or passing through any country or U.S. city/state that is classified as a “hot zone.” Also, consider keeping all drivers and delivery activities segregated from the site workforce.
7. Know how to handle symptomatic employees
Any employee who is not feeling well or showing any symptoms of an illness should stay home. The timeline before a worker should return to the site is dependent on several factors, but usually ranges from 3 to 14 days.
Consider excluding all employees from a project until they are symptom-free without the aid of medicine for three full days. You can make exceptions if:
- They had a fever or cough and were positively diagnosed with anything other than COVID-19
- They received COVID-19 test with a negative result.
Increase the timespan to 14 days if they:
- Had symptoms of COVID-19 but did NOT seek medical treatment or receive a COVID-19 test
- Sought medical treatment and tested positive for COVID-19
- Refused to answer health declaration questions.
8. Be prepared for positive COVID-19 cases
There’s a decent chance that an employee will test positive for COVID-19. If that happens, your team members should be prepared to:
- Have the infected employee leave the site immediately
- Notify a supervisor and site management
Then, management should:
- Suspend on-site work
- Complete the COVID-19 contact tracing form
- Quarantine anyone in contact with that employee
- Arrange for thorough cleaning of all common areas to sterilize the site
- Communicate the situation to subcontractors and clients while protecting the identities of the impacted employees
Don’t wait until after it’s already happened to put a plan in place.
9. Train everyone on cleaning etiquette
By now, most people have some idea of the personal hygiene needed to combat the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, it’s worth providing further education to your employees, trade partners, and clients.
First, increase the number of hand washing stations on site. Then, make sure all personnel understand that they must:
- Wash hands regularly with soap and water
- Wash hands for a minimum of 20 seconds
- Use hand sanitizer between washes
- Always wash hands before and after breaks and when arriving at or leaving a site.
Daily site cleaning
The COVID-19 virus can survive for extended periods on surfaces, so instruct project teams to:
- Wipe down site common areas daily
- Wipe down commonly used tools and work platforms after each use and at the end of the day
- Wipe down each office/trailer before and after each shift every day
- Wipe down all common surfaces in break rooms multiple times daily.
10. Work with the client to keep everyone informed and on the same page
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, especially when you factor in the needs and preferences of clients, trade partners, and others. Communication is everything.
Have site project managers talk to the client to develop answers to questions like:
- What are the criteria for suspending work on a site?
- How should the suspension be communicated to everyone involved?
- What are the criteria for re-entering the site?
- How will that be communicated to all involved?
Once you and the client have a common game plan in place, share it with everyone on the project and then stick to your standards.
You don’t have to fly blind
We’re living through a confusing time right now, but that doesn’t mean you have to wing it. There are concrete steps you can take to protect your company, your workers, your partners, and your clients. Follow these steps, and you’ll be on the right track to a safe, productive work environment.