Contractors hone processes to succeed in the midst of a pandemic
From sudden, sweeping changes in safety requirements to worker shortages, supply chain turbulence, rising construction costs and major, recurring changes to project schedules, the COVID-19 era is pushing the construction industry to decipher and adjust to numerous challenges on the fly.
During the latest webinar in BC&E’s Construction Blueprint Series, representatives of three general contractors offered their insights into the “New Realities for Contractors and How to Succeed Despite Them.”
The surge of COVID-19 cases in Maryland in March challenged contractors to implement robust infection-control measures.
Brawner Builders, Inc. immediately assembled a war room, comprised of representatives of every department and tasked with researching the rapidly evolving issues around the pandemic and conveying information back to their departments, said Sam Negahban, Senior Vice President. Once the company developed its safety protocols, it shared the model with subcontractors and helped them implement the new measures.
Wohlsen Construction assigned a pandemic safety officer to every office and every project site to ensure compliance with its new safety requirements, including worker screenings and temperature checks, frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces and project-specific requirements at senior living facilities and other sensitive sites, said Craig Smith, Senior Project Manager. “From a supervision standpoint on the jobsite, I would say we probably spend between three and four hours a day dealing with COVID-19 issues,” he said.
Meanwhile, DPR Construction developed its own app to aid worker compliance with coronavirus protocols.
“When I walked into the office this morning, I scanned a QR code,” said Chris Hoffman, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Preconstruction Leader. The app then required him to answer several COVID-19 screening questions and complete a temperature check before entering the facility.
Five months of operating within a pandemic has enabled most companies to settle into new safety routines. But sadly, that shift is not universal. During the webinar, one subcontractor described encounters with project sites where the general contractor had not implemented coronavirus safety measures.
“That’s very concerning. The industry needs to be better than that,” Hoffman said.
Panelists urged the subcontractor to have a blunt discussion with any non-compliant GC about the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 requirements and the legal liabilities facing any employer who fails to provide a safe work environment.
“You have got to hold the general contractor’s feet to the fire,” Smith said. “We are a team with the subcontracting community… If we don’t look out after the subcontractors, then we’re not doing what we are supposed to be doing as an industry.”
To implement COVID-19’s social distancing requirements, contractors have dramatically and repeatedly juggled work schedules to avoid overcrowding on construction sites, accommodate extra cleaning, address disease outbreaks and compensate for periodic worker shortages.
Temporary labor shortages, due either to health reasons or other pandemic challenges, “really creates havoc,” Negahban said. “If a subcontractor…has a shortage of painters, it’s not like I can go out and hire additional painters. They’re not available.”
Consequently, contractors frequently search for opportunities to reassign workers and reshuffle work plans to ensure that critical tasks are completed in a timely manner.
Fortunately, the pandemic’s challenges have also spurred greater collaboration among project partners.
“Owners, architects and general contractors alike have worked together to figure out what makes the most sense for that job site to keep people safe and keep the job going both from a cost standpoint and a schedule standpoint,” Hoffman said.
Those accommodations have included setting up new cost codes for COVID-19-related expenses, negotiating cost modifications to cover expenses generated by altered schedules and material prices, and altering contracts to accommodate projects that need to be accelerated in the midst of the pandemic.
Even with those accommodations and established safety regimens, contractors still have to devote extra vigilance and creativity to keeping projects on schedule. The pandemic has caused widespread and sometimes unexpected disruptions in supply chains. Many shipments of materials and products from China and other overseas producers have been delayed. Imports are further delayed once them reach American ports and those delays can vary from port to port.
Domestic suppliers have also experienced production and shipping delays due to mandated shutdowns, disease outbreaks or diminished capacity due to COVID-19 requirements.
While checking on an anticipated shipment, “I called my cabinet guy down in Georgia and he said, two of my guys have gotten sick on the line and we have had a person who passed away… So it’s a very difficult situation,” Negahban said.
Contractors, the panelists said, need to spend extra time checking on anticipated lead times, conditions and production levels within suppliers’ plants, availability and speed of delivery services, and the overall track of disease outbreaks.
After submitting a quote for a shipment of shower doors, one supplier suddenly altered its lead time from eight weeks to 20 weeks and couldn’t guarantee delivery even within that extended period, Smith said. The company scrambled and found an alternate supplier in Georgia who could deliver doors within four weeks, partly because they were located in a section of Georgia that had not been hit hard by the pandemic.
“You have to do a lot of digging and cross your fingers and pray that between the time you order the materials and the time when they are supposed to arrive onsite, there isn’t a major outbreak that is going to shut down operations,” Smith said. Although “right now, things have stabilized a lot and supply chains have gotten a lot better … it is a constant item for monitoring.”
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