Safety has always been of the utmost importance in the construction industry. During the age of COVID-19, construction firms have gone to great lengths to keep their employees and their sites safe. Many are implementing stringent sanitation measures, separate points of entry and exit, temperature screenings, prioritizing healthcare projects, and staggered shifts.
But leading firms are not only managing risks today, but also evaluating their long-term strategies and processes for safer, more resilient sites. To get a better idea of how top specialty contractors are managing contractor safety now and into the future, we spoke with safety experts from two ENR Top 600 Specialty Contractors, McKinstry and ACCO Engineered Systems. Here’s what they had to say about new risks, processes, tools, and technologies for specialty construction safety.
Construction Safety and Risk Management During COVID-19
The response to the pandemic has varied across state lines with some deeming all construction activities essential during shutdowns and others only allowing healthcare-related construction. Front-line construction workers were the most affected by shutdowns, particularly subcontractors.
Specialty construction firms will need to think creatively and strategically about how to effectively manage new risks presented by the pandemic. Already reeling from a labor shortage pre-pandemic, the industry must prioritize its workers and their safety above all else.
As projects begin to restart across the nation, the construction industry faces new risks including productivity impacts. New regulations and guidelines are constantly changing across county and state lines. Organizations must adapt quickly to these changes, updating and re-evaluating site safety programs as well as contingency plans.
Dace Campbell, Director of Project Management in Construction, and Mark Brewster, Director of Operational Excellence, share how McKinstry is confronting these risks head-on: “Our construction and technical services are deemed essential work, so we never really stopped working; however, that work comes with some new risks, and we’ve implemented COVID-19-related safe work procedures and safe travel procedures across geographies and on all our sites.”
Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a focus in increasing safe work procedures during the pandemic. The construction industry must be vigilant in ensuring that PPE is used properly. Campbell and Brewster explain, “Another concern is ensuring face coverings are properly worn, as rising summer temperatures and general discomfort while laboring with masks contribute to tendencies to lower masks.”
Transportation presents an additional risk to the industry. Both carpooling and long-distance travel to project sites may increase the chance of COVID-19 spread due to potential lax adherence to safety standards.
Donovan Seeber, Vice President of Corporate Safety at ACCO also mentions the importance of adhering to safety measures, saying, “With the number of COVID cases on the rise across the country, the likelihood of exposure increases commensurate to that. As a result, the need to remain diligent and resolute in our prevention plans is paramount.”
Seeber also notes the need to train employees on high-risk behaviors and provide accommodations to encourage social distancing. The construction industry must be especially careful during breaks as the potential increased interaction, and subsequent risk of COVID-19 spread, increases. Employees will naturally seek more interaction with co-workers during these times. It is up to industry organizations to lead the way and demonstrate ways to engage safely.
Processes, Plans, and Playbooks
Progressive contractors are proactively evolving their strategies to ensure employee safety. Common methods include the use of applications, intranets, and training playbooks. McKinstry has transformed its custom Field Daily Reporting application into a Campus Daily Reporting application for all employees. This app helps employees screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms.
The company also provides support for employees to receive more information about the virus and access necessary services through COVID-19 employee resource and employee support portals. McKinstry applies a tailored COVID-19 Safety Plan to each project’s Site Specific Safety Plan. This addendum includes information about risk mitigation and a job hazard analysis.
ACCO’s has also developed processes to manage potential or confirmed COVID-19 cases at jobsites. ACCO performs a contract tracing investigation in 24 hours or less to minimize the risk. According to Seeber, the many steps within this process require speed and collaboration to “determine if there was potential for additional exposures, communicate quickly and effectively to all the relevant parties at the site and determine what corrective actions need to be taken.” ACCO’s COVID-19 Playbook and leadership training play essential roles in facilitating the consistent application of investigation.
Rethinking Safety with Innovation
Safety matters to the overall financial wellbeing of construction companies. Companies that prioritize safety save costs and prevent significant losses. It pays to prioritize safety; studies indicate that the indirect costs of injuries can be as much as 17 times the direct costs. Leadership recognizes the ROI of safety “with 22% of U.S. CFOs planning to evaluate new tools in support of workplace location tracking and contact tracing efforts.”
While the pandemic has presented new safety risks, it has also presented the opportunity to bring innovation to core processes. Integrating efficiencies into processes often begins with data and digitization. Companies such as McKinstry are demonstrating that technologies can be used to digitize processes from cradle to grave to increase safety directly or indirectly on the jobsite.
Campbell and Brewster shed light on some of the opportunities digitization and data provide. “We are finding opportunities to improve safety when data only has to be entered once into a cloud-based, single source of truth; when labor crews can report incidents, observations, and root causes instantaneously and transparently; and when managers can review, analyze, and gain insights remotely and with fewer manual data touchpoints to allow crews more time to focus on their work.”
Interested in learning more about McKinstry’s innovation strategy? Read our interview with Doug Moore, President, McKinstry.
Raising the Bar for Productivity and Safety Through Digital Applications
Organizations need to consider not only how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but also how to respond quickly when an employee may be infected. Contact tracing is critical to addressing potential or confirmed COVID-19 cases quickly and effectively. Applications help to automate the processes behind contact tracing and reduce the potential for human error. The industry could see an increase in the development and deployment of technologies for contact tracing at jobsites.
In many cases, companies must shut down an entire site for a day or longer to complete a thorough investigation. Doing so is paramount to preventing greater contamination. However, attempting to determine which areas may be affected takes a great deal of time and presents productivity risks.
Contact tracing apps address both safety and productivity concerns simultaneously. Seeber explains, “Advances in contact tracing apps and programs that track where the infected parties have been and who they might have been close in real-time, reduces the potential wait time. The data could be available instantly to those that need to see it. This could help determine very quickly whether a specific area or the entire site is potentially at risk until proven otherwise.”
Collaboration Tools: Beyond Videoconferencing
While some tasks require in-person interaction (at a distance), others can be performed effectively remotely, provided the right tools are available. Video-conferencing tools may work for short team meetings. However, they aren’t enough to collaborate productively and comprehensively across homes, offices, shops, and fields.
Specialty contractors are embracing new tools to make collaboration work. For instance, McKinstry has adopted Extended Reality (XR) technologies for spatial, experiential, and task-based collaboration. Campbell explains just how transformative this technology can be: “XR offers remote subject-matter assistance by bringing office and home workers to the jobsite, quality control by bringing the jobsite conditions to the fabrication shop, and spatially-contextual BIM data everywhere it’s needed.”
Rising Opportunities for Offsite Construction
Offsite manufacturing and construction presents certain complexities as it can be difficult to get up to speed, challenging to apply, and tough to find labor skilled in this area. In general, prefabrication has been underutilized in the industry. However, the pandemic may be encouraging companies to embrace its application to increase productivity and safety. Multi-trade prefabrication helps to reduce the number of people at a jobsite. Instead, labor is concentrated in a shop, where as McKinstry’s team explains, “there are fewer hazards, more predictability, and generally more comfortable working conditions — all of which bring lower risks to personal safety.”
How Construction Can Automate Its Way to Higher Safety Standards
Automation is making its way from fabrication shops to jobsites. McKinstry is looking to automation to increase both productivity and safety. As automation mitigates the risks of hazardous or repetitive tasks, it reduces the burden on resources and gives crews more time to focus on high-value work.
Campbell and Brewster share its potential to reduce rework, “With the proper automation, we can improve the timely communication of design or fabrication changes, and dramatically reduce rework by having the right information in the right place at the right time. This further feeds increases in productivity and safety, while boosting morale and maintaining predictability and profitability in an uncertain world.”
According to Seeber, “Automated health screening machines could speed up this process and keep jobsites safer by not allowing symptomatic individuals onto the site.” He explains that temperature screening is often performed through a touchless thermometer held by an employee wearing PPE. With automated systems, employees can stand in front of a screen device similar to a camera for a health scan and automated notifications could be sent to team members potentially at risk.
People-First Mentality Means Success for Specialty Contractors
Top specialty contractors like ACCO and McKinstry understand that people are their most valuable resource. Campbell and Brewster reiterate that fact: “Putting people first is our top value, and we want to ensure every person goes home unharmed.”
In a world where new risks seemingly appear each day, the most successful companies will leverage new technologies, automation, and leading-edge processes to safeguard their teams now and in the future.