What can workers do when they can’t social distance?
It’s one in the long list of seemingly impossible things we are asked to achieve in the time of COVID-19: CDC guidelines and GC contracts urge construction workers to stay six feet apart on the jobsite.
“You do your best to respect each other’s space. But electricians tend to work shoulder-to-shoulder with their team members,” said Scott Gelston, Senior Estimating Manager with DEL Electric. “It’s impossible to stay six feet apart when you’re performing certain tasks. When we pull big feeder cables, one guy is holding the bundle of cables and the other guy is working right in front of him, taping them up and putting on all the needed components.”
So how can you achieve the goal of stopping the spread of COVID-19 when you can’t always maintain a six-foot distance?
PPE, CLEANERS AND COMMUNICATION
Increasingly, contractors are requiring site workers to wear both a mask and a face shield if they have to function within six feet of one another. Recent medical research shows length of exposure can significantly impact whether someone gets infected or how large of a viral load they develop, so reducing the time that workers remain in close proximity could also help protect individuals’ health.
More builders are adopting vigorous cleaning regimens. Wohlsen Construction, for example, adopted a new protocol that high-touch surfaces on its sites must be wiped down hourly.
“Some projects have become proactive. Every Wednesday, they run a second shift and sterilize the site,” Gelston said.
Heightened communication among subcontractors, suppliers, primes and others on project sites is also helping stop the spread. By immediately notifying other project partners whenever anyone on site tests positive, companies help everyone onsite identify individuals who may have been exposed so they can get tested and quarantine as necessary.
“Out in the field, our foremen have to be vigilant about managing their folks, identifying symptoms and communicating,” said Diane Carter, Director of Human Resources at Gray & Son.
That vigilance has proven effective. Among Gray & Son’s 450 staff members, only one has tested positive and that worker was on seasonal layoff, Carter said.
Contractors have moved to reduce the density of workers on sites by staggering shifts, resequencing work and capping crew sizes. Some are furthering that reduction while still advancing projects by making greater use of jobsite video monitoring. Camera systems are widely available and simplify distant monitoring through their remote control, motion sensor, night vision and other features. While the technology has mostly been used to date for security and progress tracking, it can also enable project managers, superintendents and safety managers to complete some monitoring from a distance and lower crowding on site.
The Internet of Things is also beginning to produce devices that could help construction workers meet COVID-19 requirements.
Triax Technologies this spring released the Proximity Trace wearable tag. A variation of the company’s Spot-r safety monitoring tag, Proximity Trace fits onto a standard hardhat with a 3D-printed mounting clip. The tag beeps when it detects another tag within a set distance, such as six feet, and logs all the other tags it encounters. By announcing and tracking those close encounters, the system could help workers avoid unnecessary proximity and help supervisors identify particular locations or functions on site that are especially problematic for distancing. The tags also provide valuable data for contract tracing should someone on the jobsite test positive for COVID-19.