Exposing a gap: construction safety programs catching up with the COVID-19 crisis

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Tony Roussey Courtesy Elzinga & Volkers

By its very nature, construction is a dangerous activity requiring many people to work in close quarters in an ever-changing environment. Our industry works continuously to evaluate the programs, procedures, equipment and enforcement mechanisms that keep our people safe. 

West Michigan has a great record for construction safety, but the recent COVID-19 crisis appears to have exposed a blind spot that many of us did not see coming.  

I have been in contact with dozens of general contractors and trade contractors over the last two weeks regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. Many of us have been scrambling to implement and communicate new procedures and protocols related to communicable diseases. We have also learned a great deal from businesses outside of the construction industry. The following are just a few suggestions for those looking to strengthen their safety programs during this time.   

1. Create a communicable illness response plan: A basic plan will cover a variety of potential illnesses ranging from the seasonal flu to specific illnesses like COVID-19. The plan outlines communication channels for employees, identifies decision-making authority and modifies policies like corporate travel and remote working, during a communicable illness situation. The plans also clarify and reinforce anti-discrimination language and confidentiality policies. These basic plans can be used continually and should outline the general response your company will have to any communicable disease event.

2. Preparedness planning for positive exposure: Communicable diseases vary greatly and the specific response to each one can be very different. Building on your communicable illness response plan, companies should be prepared to issue a positive exposure preparedness plan. The current COVID-19 crisis is forcing every company to prepare for and expect a positive exposure among its employees, family members or a close connection. The preparedness plan outlines the specific reaction of the company to that positive exposure. 

Such a plan includes, among other items, how employees who have a positive contact should communicate with their supervisor(s) and HR contacts. The plan closely follows expert guidelines and suggestions from local health authorities on the specific illness that the plan addresses. The plan also will address those employees who either have sick family members or those that were close to an employee who has a positive exposure. 

The plan will vary greatly based on the disease it addresses. Safety teams and managers should create a template that can be quickly modified to address current situations. These plans also should include communications, guidelines and suggestions directly from the health authorities. The team should be careful not to give medical advice, just guidance on how to limit exposure and how to direct an employee to the right medical care.  

3. Listen to experts: The COVID-19 crisis already has shown us how fast misinformation can travel. When in doubt, teams should defer to health authorities like the CDC, WHO and local health departments. These agencies tend to approach illness situations aggressively, with an abundance of caution, but I would rather be safe than sorry in a communicable disease situation.

4. Other considerations: Create a project site sanitation and cleaning plan, including basic cleaning supplies required on-site, a cleaning schedule for project site offices and a response plan if any person on-site shows symptoms of illness. This procedure also may include identifying an isolation area for someone who is sick awaiting medical attention.  

Treat a disease like any other unsafe situation. None of us would knowingly put our people in an unsafe project site situation. Communicable diseases are no different. Employees should maintain their right to stop work if they ever feel unsafe. As we have done with our own, allow those able to work from home the encouragement to do so, encourage whatever separation you can manage.

We all need to maintain our strong commitment to project site safety during this time to keep our safety cultures intact after this crisis has passed.

Now is a great time to use your networks to collaborate and share best practices. Unfortunately, this crisis has exposed a weakness in our safety program. Fortunately, it also has allowed us to address the weakness and be that much stronger when we face similar situations in the future. If you have any questions or would like samples of the documents mentioned above, please feel free to contact me at tonyr@ev.construction.

To all of my construction industry brothers and sisters, stay safe and stay strong. We will go on building a great community through this crisis.     

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