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Want to Know How to Reopen Our Country? Look to Construction

BY STEPHEN E. SANDHERR
AGC CEO

As I write this column, the nation is in the middle of a debate about the best way to reopen our economy amid the coronavirus. The good news is that the construction industry offers a road map on how to get back to work while protecting workers and the public. That is why I took advantage of my appointment to the President’s Great American Economic Recovery Task Force to urge the administration to follow the model set by our industry.

As one of the few segments of the economy that has continued to operate, the construction industry has had to learn new ways of operating to be able to work safely. These new practices have helped prevent the kind of widespread workplace outbreaks that many fear will occur when our broader economy fully reopens. And they offer several important lessons for what needs to happen to restart the broader economy.

First and foremost, employers will need to establish new safety practices, and constantly reinforce, and enforce, them. The coronavirus forced construction firms to make significant changes to their safety procedures. In addition to protecting workers from common hazards like moving equipment and falling from heights, construction firms had to figure out how to build while maintaining social distancing, discouraging the sharing of tools, establishing far more hand sanitizing stations and frequently disinfecting high-touch areas, among other measures.

But as all of you have learned, changing procedures alone isn’t enough. Without aggressive and continual reinforcement, old habits easily return. For example, it has proven hard to keep workers from gathering in close groups without holding recurring safety briefings. One lecture is not enough, and employers will need to be prepared to send workers home who violate the new safety procedures. The coronavirus offers no margin for error.

Employers will need to stagger shifts and breaks. Construction firms learned quickly that having every worker show up at the same time was a safety hazard. They put in place different start times for different workers to avoid bunching at project gates, and more importantly, to limit the number of people working in a single area of a project at a given time. Firms also learned they need to change break and lunch schedules to avoid crowded picnic tables and rest areas.

We need far more masks, gloves and other protective equipment than is currently available. One reason construction continued in many parts of the country is because the industry’s workers are already equipped with safety gear like gloves and even face masks. The short-term future of work in this country is going to involve a lot of masks and gloves. The country’s production and supply of masks and other items like sanitizer, disposable gloves and disinfecting products will have to increase substantially before more workers can leave their homes and safely report back to jobsites.

For every several steps forward, be ready to step back. While the construction industry’s new safety practices have been largely successful, there have been numerous incidents where a single worker tests positive for the coronavirus. This has forced work at those projects to stop while crews are tested, work areas are disinfected, and the site is cleared for work to resume. It is safe to assume that similar incidents will occur as the broader economy restarts. Progress will not be linear, and employers need to prepare for the likelihood of additional closures. Restarting the economy is proving to be harder than shutting it down. But the construction industry has shown there is a way to work — safely — amid the coronavirus. That path involves a lot of changes to the way firms operate and manage their employees. It will require massive increases in the supply of safety gear like gloves and masks. And it will involve many stops and restarts. But just as all of you found a way to work safely, so too can the rest of
our economy.