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Temperature checks, social distancing new reality in construction

Posted On: Apr. 29, 2020 7:00 AM CST


As parts of the country re-open after closing up for nearly six weeks because of coronavirus, construction is also ramping up. But for workers, daily life on the job site will look significantly different for the foreseeable future, experts say.

Work on construction sites has “absolutely changed 100% across board,” said Pittsburgh-based Carl Heinlein, senior safety consultant for the American Contractors Insurance Group. “Now, before you come onto a project, you’re going through a health assessment, and in many cases that will include a temperature reading, and you’re probably going to go through some sort of re-education or toolbox talk discussion about social distancing.”

When coronavirus started shutting down the country, Gary Kaplan, Chicago-based president of Axa XL’s North America Construction insurance business, began reaching out to his construction company clients by phone to find out how the virus was impacting their business. There was a mixed response to how the industry was handling the virus depending on whether they operated in a hot spot such as New York City or in Dallas, where infection rates were lower, he said.

“Even if they were shutting down their projects, they had to maintain some crews onsite for security, safety and maintenance,” Mr. Kaplan said. “A lot of them were dealing with issues with social distance, and some of them had to alter times when people would come onsite so they wouldn’t be stuck in a big line.”

Contractors have a lot of questions about how they can restart projects while preventing workers from being exposed to COVID-19. They’re grappling with such issues as how to get workers through the gates and to work safely, a process that used to take 15 minutes and now can take several hours, Mr. Heinlein said.

“A lot of contractors are implementing shift work so people have more time to work during the day, which reduces the number of people working on top of each other,” said Debbie Cazan, Atlanta-based partner in the law office of Alston & Bird LLP.

More construction sites are also using technology to monitor distancing and contact tracing, said Cheri Hanes, Dallas-based construction risk engineer for Axa XL.

For instance, Proxxi Co. in Vancouver, British Columbia, modified its wristwatch-like technology created to prevent electrocution to now alert workers when another person is within six feet. Norwalk, Connecticut-based Triax Technologies Inc. is using devices mounted on hardhats as contact tracers, so if a worker tests positive for coronavirus, other workers who had been in close proximity to that individual could be quickly identified. Inc., based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has created a module for onsite cameras to identify when workers are violating social distancing and other safety rules.

“It’s been amazing to see the speed with which these companies have pivoted to address emerging issues,” Mr. Kaplan said. “The adoption of technology has been very, very slow (in construction). I think we’re going to see that change pretty dramatically.”

Another change for construction that’s likely to stay is the thought and time put into work planning and execution, said Brad Giles, New Meadows, Idaho-based senior vice president of the American Society of Safety Professionals and a member of the society’s board of directors.

“(Contractors) are planning to do things with the minimum amount of people … when before, you might have thrown 10 guys on site without going through all your planning activities,” he said. “Right now, everybody is scared to death of going to the hospital, so they’re extra diligent about planning their work … and actually seeing some positive impacts on productivity.”

The industry is also putting much more emphasis on safety and hazardous awareness training, emergency preparedness, and hygiene and sanitation.

“We’re already hearing that increased hygiene, sanitation and social distancing are all being implemented on sites,” said Kaileigh Bowe, vice president of Naperville, Illinois-based Highland Insurance Solutions, a subsidiary of WNC Insurance Services Inc.

These improved safety practices are also being brought into the contract negotiation process, Ms. Cazan said. In a current project negotiation, the contractor has included a 110-page safety policy that it intends to implement as a result of coronavirus as an exhibit to the contract — a first, she said.

“Going forward, I fully expect that guidelines will be implemented and included as part of the subcontracts and the contracts,” she said.

Ms. Bowe said safety checklists and pandemic preparedness could also be added to policy forms in the future.

“Obviously, it’s not going to do any good to have a great policy without someone in charge of enforcing it,” Ms. Cazan said. Contractors should have a dedicated person responsible for enforcing the guidelines and make sure documentation — such as noting the names of every worker who passed a temperature check each workday — confirms the enforcement, she said.

Contractors also need to make sure vendors, suppliers and subcontractors are taking precautions and that all parties maintain clear and consistent communication, Mr. Heinlein said.

“I firmly believe when we come through this pandemic, a lot of companies and job sites are going to have new programs, processes and procedures that will stay with them forever,” he said. “I feel very confident that a lot of these lessons learned … will probably stick with the industry.”

More insurance and workers compensation news on the coronavirus crisis here.