There are a few words in the English language we don’t use frequently – and for good reason – due to their connotation. One of these words is “unprecedented.”
It is not very often that we experience something that has never been seen before, but that is exactly what the COVID-19 pandemic has been. It is unlike any other crisis in that it has affected every business, no matter the size, in every industry around the world by forcing business owners to re-think how they deliver their goods and services. Innovations, technology adoptions and increased remote work environments – which may have been 3-5 years away for most businesses – were implemented (in most cases) overnight. All of this, the very definition of unprecedented.
The New York construction industry is one of the industries that has been severely impacted by the pandemic. At the onset, all construction was considered essential, and the industry rolled on. Yes, there were numerous precautions implemented from the start. But as the number of cases in New York grew, so did the public outcry to completely close job sites to prevent the spread of infection. And as we all know, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order on March 27, 2020 to shut down all construction across the State, aside from those essential projects for public good.
As we have moved on from that date and now look to re-open the economy, the construction industry will play a large role in leading the way. As more and more projects are deemed essential and allowed to re-mobilize, there are a number of “unprecedented” questions and considerations that contractors will face around how they will reopen, the impact that social distancing will have on job sites, and when the distressed economy will hit an industry that typically lags.
When will the majority of construction companies be allowed to reopen?
The ability to reopen the business community will vary widely by state and even city. Some governors will rely heavily on federal guidance based on epidemiological benchmarks, while others are already pushing back on federal recommendations.
In the hard-hit tri-state area, the return to work will be a multi-phased approach. The more essential businesses with relatively low risk of infection will be allowed to open first, followed by less essential businesses with higher levels of risk of infection, and finally the reopening of all businesses and schools. The lower-risk businesses are considered those whose employees have minimal occupational contact with the public and other coworkers.
New York has announced a tiered approach, with construction being included in phase one. While this is welcome news for the industry, it also means construction companies will have little precedent for operating successfully in a post-pandemic world. While their lead time has been small, the companies that never shut down and those who have started to come back “online” in the upstate regions and New Jersey are providing a developing model that the still-shuttered New York construction company can study and learn from.
What can I do to prepare now?
Regardless of when the remainder of construction companies will be permitted to reopen, there are plans you can put in place now to prepare for the industry’s “new normal,” including:
Job Site Safety
In the pre-COVID-19 world, the emphasis on safe job sites was well documented. Now, contractors have the challenge of building not only safely, but healthily as well. This will require increased investments in personal protective equipment (PPE), frequent trainings on hygiene, an increased focus on sanitized project spaces and other new ways of protecting the wellbeing of your employees.
Do not expect on-site and on-staff medics/nurses to be uncommon as the industry eyes hiring medical professionals to float from job site to job site (a great PPP headcount strategy, by the way), rather than outsourcing this function. Further, the notion of building and utilizing entry point “clean rooms” where laborers’ temperatures are taken before job site access is granted isn’t too far away either.
Job Site & Workplace Redesign
Even after businesses start to reopen, social distancing measures will remain in effect for quite a while in densely populated areas like New York City, necessitating changes to the design of your job site and offices.
In terms of limiting the number of people allowed on a job site, plan to control headcount through strategies like reducing hoist occupancy and implementing one-way hallways and stairwells that lead to designated entry and exit spots.
For the critical office functions, start to reimagine and plan to modify your cubicles, desks, conference rooms and other workspaces to meet the 6-foot recommendation.
To maintain this social distance and limit your employees’ potential exposure to infection, consider staggered work shifts if the project owner, general contractor and/or the regulatory bodies all agree. While running projects for extended hours during the day may incur additional costs, reduced headcount onsite will vastly decrease the risks and expenses associated with COVID-19 transmission.
In the office, utilize any telecommuting and remote work capabilities developed during quarantine to allow for continued employee productivity outside of the workplace.
Cleaning and Sanitization
The former method and frequency of cleaning job sites, offices and equipment will not suffice in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees will be hesitant to return to the job site or office, but heightened disinfection measures will not only allay these fears but also protect the construction company from excessive risk of an outbreak, especially if other trades could be impacted.
Develop and budget for a more robust cleaning schedule, paying special attention to frequently touched tools and surfaces and adding frequently trafficked areas on the jobs to the regular cleaning rotation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have both issued recommendations on the methods, frequency and types of disinfectant products to use to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The Department of Labor has also issued Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 to help businesses comply with OSHA regulations as they reopen their workplaces. The oversight of OSHA is something the construction industry is all too familiar with, so when maintaining an OSHA log, be certain to:
- Document and investigate all employee COVID-19 infections and determine if they could have been work-related;
- Follow applicable reporting protocols for each case;
- Maintain documentation of your investigation in the event of an OSHA investigation.
Interaction with Other Trades
Employees are not the only ones the construction contractor will need to protect once job sites re-mobilize. Plan ahead with the general contractor and other trade contractors to develop and implement measures to promote social distancing and ensure minimal contact between on-site employees and material vendors.
On-site job personnel should be provided with PPE that is appropriate to their job tasks. Special planning for high-risk exposure, such as clear plastic sneeze guards or physical barriers, will need to be considered as well.
Unfortunately, all of these social distancing, cleaning and protective measures within the construction company’s office or job site cannot control what germs are brought in from the outside. Perhaps the most foreign new activity that most employers will need to implement is screening their employees for infection.
Prepare a plan for daily screening of all employees and create policies that require those showing symptoms or fever to stay home or work remotely. Employees will need to be formally notified of these new procedures, as well as the corrective actions that will be taken if the safety measures are not followed.
Human Resources Strategies
The human resource professional’s role is evolving just as quickly as the business owner’s during this pandemic. Communicating with employees about health issues while respecting their privacy, recruiting and retaining employees during a crisis, keeping employee morale high when everyone is working remotely, and convincing employees it is safe to return to work are unprecedented challenges for your HR staff. If you do not have an adequate HR staff to handle these additional needs, consider a temporary outsourced solution.
Where do I begin?
Preparing to reopen your construction company should be approached as any other risk mitigation plan, which identifies and predicts risk, estimates its impact and defines proactive responses.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts of your Reopening Your Construction Company risk mitigation plan:
- DO put the plan in writing, including new interim policies specific to the COVID-19 crisis.
- DO assign a risk management team to oversee and carry out the action items of the plan.
- DO communicate new safety measures to employees, customers and other key stakeholders
- DO educate all employees on the plan and monitor staff adherence.
- DON’T tolerate non-compliance with the plan. Develop and enforce corrective actions that will be taken if safety measures are not followed.
- DON’T forget about the plan. This document should be fluid and reassessed regularly. Measure its effectiveness and address any deficiencies as soon as possible.
- And DO encourage people to stay home if they are feeling sick.
As the construction industry digests strategies to navigate a new building landscape with unprecedented challenges, we will continue to monitor and learn from the COVID-19 pandemic. But one thing is certain: the construction industry is a resilient one and has always led us through the recovery of hard economic times. Why should this be any different?