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When news first broke of an unknown, deadly virus plaguing China, Atlanta-based Batson-Cook Construction’s executive leadership took action to prepare for the worst, said Nicole Ivers, the company’s vice president of health, safety and environment.
Before the first COVID-19 case was recorded in the U.S., the company’s new COVID-19 response team had been meeting weekly to assess emerging risks and develop protocol and contingency plans that were updated as new information and CDC guidance emerged, Ms. Ivers said in her presentation on COVID safety in construction at the American Society of Safety Professionals’ Safety 2021 Conference and Expo, held in Austin and online Monday.
“As an industry, we thought that construction would be stopped. We were projecting worst-case-scenarios and thinking about how we would maintain the essential staff and continue to operate without our business literally going under,” she said.
In her presentation, Ms. Ivers reflected on what worked, what didn’t and positive consequences of the pandemic experience, including strengthening Baston-Cook’s overall resiliency and how a sustained focus on workforce health and safety improved the company’s health, safety and environment management program.
Getting employees to adhere to safety protocols was made easier by the fact that personal risk exposure directly compromised the safety of others, she said. Ms. Ivers also noted the importance of “visible safety leadership” by executives in securing adherence to mask mandates and other guidelines.
A greater awareness on safety best practices, combined with the overall mental and emotional toll of the pandemic experience universally, had an immediate impact on broadening the scope and attention on employee health, Ms. Ivers said.
“Developing a ‘total worker health approach’ is something we are moving more and more into in the world of (health, safety and environment), taking in emotional health and mental health. This gave us an opportunity to look at this public health component that we really hadn't all been able to embrace and bring into the HSE world,” Ms. Ivers said.
Mistakes were also made along the way. As the pandemic continues, one important lesson Ms. Ivers highlights is to not forget about other risks on jobsites.
“We put a laser focus on COVID that took all of the power, effort and attention of workers,” Ms. Ivers said. “There was a lot of other stuff that just wasn't getting the same attention that it should have.”
The politics of mask-wearing and vaccines was also a challenge – one that isn’t going away, either, she said.
As companies navigate obstacles in vaccine mandates and efficiency, the threat of new variants, evolving employee demands, and other emerging developments yet to come, Ms. Ivers said lessons learned thus far in staying on top and ahead of the next development will be key in not only navigating this pandemic, but the next one too.