Delta surge and vaccine hesitancy complicate construction projects
As the Delta variant drives up COVID-19 infection rates across America, the construction industry is facing an additional mid-pandemic operational challenge, namely vaccine hesitancy.
In several surveys this year, construction workers ranked as the most hesitant industry group to get vaccinated. In a Construction Dive survey released in May, 46.4 percent of respondents in construction/extraction occupations said they probably or definitely would not get vaccinated. A follow-up study in August showed vaccination rates among construction workers had risen. The number of workers who reported they had received at least one shot reached 81 percent — up from 60 percent in the spring. However, among unvaccinated construction workers, only 2 percent said they were considering getting the shot.
“From an employee wellness standpoint, there is probably nothing better that you could do right now for your workforce than encourage them to get vaccinated,” said James Gaughan, Director of Claims and Risk Consulting at RCM&D.
That encouragement, however, is only generating partial success among employers who would like to see their workers vaccinated.
“The construction industry has a pool of employees who are hesitant to get vaccinated. There are a lot of non-believers,” Gaughan said. “I don’t think there is any appetite among contractors to require vaccinations. There seems to be a concern that if they mandate vaccines, they will restrict their pool of potential workers.”
A senior official with one BC&E member company who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described their firm’s efforts to try to encourage vaccination. “There is a tremendous amount of misinformation on social media which we believe could be causing some of the challenges in getting people vaccinated.”
The firm has worked to counter misinformation by making solid scientific information, such as reports from the Centers for Disease Control, available to staff. It also began arranging one-on-one conversations between unvaccinated staff members and coworkers they trusted. Those conversations helped the company understand individuals’ questions, concerns or objections to the vaccine. In the cases of some people who were on the fence about vaccination, the conversations prompted them to get immunized.
“Everyone has their own circumstance whether it is their beliefs, family members or tolerance for risk. Everyone has their own personal view of this issue and you have to respect that and try to work within that as much as possible.”
But in that company and most others, a percentage of employees have resolved not to get vaccinated. And that is creating a growing day-to-day challenge for many contractors.
The surge of Delta cases combined with the Federal Drug Administration full approval of the COVID-19 vaccine is prompting more employers – especially in governments, healthcare and higher education – to mandate vaccines for onsite workers. That mandate is beginning to extend to construction workers on their properties with requirements that onsite crew members either show proof of vaccination or submit to frequent (in some cases, daily) testing.
Such requirements are leaving contractors navigating a chessboard to determine which workers they can assign to which projects. They must also establish how to manage required screening and cover associated costs.
At some construction sites, contractors are facing a different type of effort to contend with the Delta surge, namely “working inside bubbles,” Gaughan said.
Instead of requiring construction workers to be vaccinated, a customer “will close off and separate contractors from their own workforce so that their employees aren’t exposed to the contractors’ crews,” he said. “That can mean creating separate entrances to the property, requiring that you stay within your bubble and you follow heightened requirements for masking and other precautions.”
Some clients are implementing geographic bubbles and requiring testing for individuals who aren’t locally based. One site specified that as anyone who had travelled beyond a 100-mile radius around the site, Gaughan said. Other sites are requiring subcontractors to maintain their own physical bubble/separation onsite to avoid cross-contamination among the trades.
“The current reality,” he said, “is you are either dealing with vaccinations or you are dealing with rigorous protocols — PPE, distancing, testing, hygiene, education. It’s one or the other and you can’t put your head in the sand.”