Taking every industry by surprise, COVID-19 changed workplace safety protocols. Declared a global health crisis by the World Health Organization on March 11, the mysterious virus, originating in Wuhan in late December 2019, soon became a stark reality.
Companies who had never heard the acronym “PPE” scrambled for personal protective equipment, leading to shortages of everything from face shields and medical masks to disposable gloves, hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes. And terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” are now commonplace, a year after the novel coronavirus made its fateful debut in Central China’s most populous city.
To the public and mainstream media, most PPE today refers to gloves, gowns, and N95 respirators. For the construction industry, PPE – used on job sites to minimize hazards – means safety glasses, hard hats, coveralls, hearing protection, work gloves and steel toe boots. Even with these safeguards, workplace tragedies occur.
According to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), 21.1 percent of the 4,779 worker deaths in private industry in 2018 (the most recent records available) were in construction. These numbers refer to the “Fatal Four” causes of death: falls, struck by object, electrocutions, and caught-in/between (compression, crushing by structure, equipment, or material).
OSHA says that eliminating the Fatal Four would spare the lives of 591 workers across the U.S. every year. But while numbers of deaths in construction are declining, the appearance of COVID-19 on often-crowded work sites has only added to the risks construction workers face every day.
An essential industry
Unlike many office, sales, hospitality, and tourism jobs, construction was deemed an essential service in many regions across North America in the early days of the pandemic. For the estimated 11.2 million construction workers in the United States and over 1.2 million in Canada, the work shortages from shutting down all building projects would have been disastrous, and a blow to both construction companies and the economy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, trade associations like the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) and others advocated on behalf of their members to keep jobs, and projects, moving.
When COVID-19 struck, there were no guidebooks telling either private companies or federal, state, and provincial governments ‘what to do in case of a pandemic.’ This understandably led to confusion about whether construction was permitted at all, or if it was, what kind.
By April, specific types of construction were deemed necessary, including projects in healthcare, transportation, energy, critical industrial such as oil refineries and petrochemical plants, and some residential work (providing it was in progress before the beginning of the pandemic). Just as importantly, maintenance works vital to the safety and function of industrial, commercial, and residential buildings were permitted.
Safety driving productivity
Long before COVID, the construction industry had been dealing with other issues causing significant delays, particularly a shortage of skilled tradespeople. For builders, the pandemic has just added yet another layer to existing challenges of getting projects completed on time and on budget.
Supplies of products like bricks, mortar, wood, electrical fixtures and wiring, drywall, insulation, baseboard and trim and tools – especially those manufactured in Asia – continue to be slow and are now even more expensive. Safety measures surrounding workplace cleanliness have added to the cost. And now, along with monitoring PPE that includes head, foot and eye protection, safety belts and nets, lifelines and more, the construction industry is also responsible for ensuring COVID protocols are being met.
To increase awareness of requirements, OSHA regularly posts COVID news and updates about controlling and preventing the spread of the virus in all sectors, including construction, on its website, https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/. Many of these guidelines are being applied to job sites worldwide, starting with screening questions for employees, especially important if any are experiencing flu-like symptoms or have been in contact with anyone in quarantine or isolation.
COVID safety measures on construction sites include what has become the new normal – keeping six feet away from others and wearing surgical masks or respirators. To prevent disease transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends regular use of hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol, along with regular hand washing.
Since construction is often carried out in very close quarters, with workers standing next to each other and in frequent contact with shared ladders, scaffolds, hand rails, and toilets, this can be challenging. Precautions now include washing hands before putting on or removing work gloves, face coverings, and safety glasses; handling tools and equipment; and handling food.
For improved safety of workers, clients, suppliers and any others accessing job sites, companies should install hand washing and sanitizing stations and hold meetings outdoors to reduce transmission of the virus. Further measures include staggering work times so there are fewer employees in any area simultaneously; encouraging staff to seal work clothes in separate bags before taking them off to be laundered; installing Plexiglas shields where possible; and distancing workers, or limiting their numbers, in trailers or lunchrooms.
Leading the way
In recent years, the North American construction industry has emerged as an innovator and early adopter of new equipment, tools, materials and techniques to enhance safety and productivity on building sites.
On the body, wearable cameras and ultra-bright hard hat lights like the Illumagear Halo provide 360-degree visibility for up to a quarter mile, greatly reducing accident risk. According to a recent Construction Association report, almost 30 percent of construction companies are making a priority of investment in advanced technologies to increase safety and productivity.
In the last decade, the construction industry has welcomed a number of transforming technologies that make workplaces safer while increasing productivity. Some are physical, like drones.
Once the expensive hobby of flight enthusiasts, drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UVAs) – have come down sharply in price. Instead of workers risking their safety on scaffolds, ladders or in crane baskets, UVAs are able to virtually transport them to higher elevations. Even smaller units, equipped with cameras, are able to give a bird’s-eye view of construction sites in real time, checking for everything from material delivery half a mile away to potential safety hazards.
An example of the marrying of separate technologies to produce something new is wearable smart sensors. Equipping wearable tech like vests, glasses and hard hats to make ‘smart helmets,’ these tools include cameras, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, GPS and more.
And among the greatest recent innovations moving the construction industry forward is artificial intelligence (AI). Used to optimize workflow, AI not only connects and organizes teams, but boosts profits. A recent report produced by multinational professional services company Accenture says that AI “has the potential to boost rates of profitability by an average of 38 percent by 2035 and lead to an economic boost of US$14 trillion across 16 industries in 12 economies by 2035.” Construction workflows are ideally suited to be among the beneficiaries of increased AI.
Even with AI, virtual reality, wearable tech, drones, and other technologies, one of the best ways to keep workers productive and safe is through better utilization of a now commonplace technology, namely smart phones. Already used for communication and sharing documents, there are now apps aimed at the construction industry for COVID-19 monitoring.
These newly developed apps, both paid and free, are helping to keep workers healthy. Some are government-created, while others – like the BuildCenter Health Screening Tool (www.BuildCenter.com) – are free software spinoffs from COBE Construction, Inc.
Using OSHA COVID-19 Guidelines, the app screens all construction site workers and visitors ahead of their arrival for any signs of COVID. Available on Google Play and at the Apple App Store, BuildCenter has speedy contract tracing and lets users know if someone has been exposed to the virus.
“The BuildCenter Health Screening Tool gives a high level of confidence to companies and clients,” said BuildCenter Chief Executive Officer Shaun Olson in a media release. “It’s in all of our best interests to help each other adapt to new work environments and help our industry get back on the road to normalcy. We all want to be able to safely work again, and if we don’t follow the new safety protocols, our job sites will get shut down and that should be avoided.”
Although the impact of COVID-19 has cost many construction companies dearly – causing everything from work stoppages to a shortage of building materials – the industry’s ongoing commitment to health and safety and the dedication of workers will see the sector rebound. While the virus and necessary precautions like social distancing, limiting physical contact, regular hand washing and disinfecting tools will be the norm for months to come, the industry’s resilience will see it prosper.
There will be no stopping the economic juggernaut of demand for new homes, renovations, offices, industrial buildings, hospitals, and infrastructure like bridges and roads, and this work will once more drive the construction industry to be a leader in the world’s economic recovery.