The coronavirus outbreak has led to the shutdown of much of the economy in the interest of public health. In some states, construction is considered essential work. In others, only certain projects are being given the go-ahead. Almost every project in the country is operating with new restrictions that mandate social distancing and public health practices, like mask-wearing, 6 feet of distance between workers and limitations on the number of staff who can be on-site at a time.
In addition to these restrictions, the construction industry is also facing significant uncertainty. The crisis has disrupted the supply chain and labor market. Clients are readjusting their priorities in the face of limited cash flow. All companies need to prepare for the uncertainty of the next few months — and plan for keeping workers safe during the coronavirus outbreak.
Here are six tips that construction companies can use to keep work going through COVID-19.
Keep in close contact with workers, lenders, regulators, suppliers and clients. Material shortages, labor issues and shifting regulations can all impact a project. If there’s a delay, you’ll want to relay this information to your clients. Practice the elements of good crisis communication — stay responsibly transparent and communicate relevant information when possible.
To keep all parties informed — and to stay abreast of the availability of materials and equipment — you will likely need to communicate more than typical. Where possible, take advantage of all available channels — phone, email and videoconferencing software.
You should also consider creating a task force of administrative and customer support staff to stay in direct contact with clients and assist workers. This will help you provide rapid updates, stay on top of concerns and avoid failures in communication.
2. Promote Good Site Hygiene
Follow good construction site hygiene practices, as well as any necessary state regulations on worker safety during COVID-19. Require workers to wear PPE while on-site, maintain 6 feet of distance when possible, and encourage staff to stagger lunches and breaks. Ask any employees, contractors or site visitors showing symptoms of COVID-19 to return home. Limit the length of meetings and consider delaying training, seminars and other events that require in-person contact.
You can also implement other safety measures, such as discouraging employee ride-sharing. Encourage the use of individual water bottles rather than communal water coolers while on-site to help keep workers safe.
Prepare to handle the shortage of N95 respirators. While alternatives, like cloth masks, are available, they won’t provide adequate protection against dust and other particulate matter. Dust control methods will be even more important than usual for the foreseeable future. Consider using isolation methods that keep dust contained in work areas and site housekeeping to help manage buildup.
You can also follow the lead of other construction companies that are finding new ways to help workers social distance on-site. One Cincinnati construction company, for example, broke its daily morning huddle into several smaller ones to make it easier for workers to keep their distance.
3. Go Remote When Possible
Because they recirculate air, confined spaces like office buildings may be more likely to spread COVID-19. Administrative and office staff typically don’t need to be in the office or onsite to do their jobs. While keeping them on-premises may make coordination and communication easier, it may also pose a health risk. As a result, almost every business that can do so right now is pivoting to working from home.
Your business can provide resources to administrative and office staff that allow them to work from home. Network upgrades, WFH tech and reimbursement for updates to home computers can enable administrative staff to continue working, even if they can’t be on-site or in the office. If you’re worried about WFH productivity, there’s some evidence that remote workers are just as productive — if not more — as those who stay in the office.
You can also go remote for meetings with business contacts. Many construction companies have also switched from in-person meetings with clients and suppliers to conferences held over the phone, or with software like Zoom or Google Meet.
4. Manage Costs
Delays, material and labor shortages, and compliance with social distancing may all slow down progress on current projects, potentially driving up their cost.
Consider reviewing budgets and finding expenses that could be reduced. If you notice that some expenses are significantly higher than they should be, you can adopt new policies or technology that helps reduce those costs. For example, newer, more energy-efficient tools may help your construction company reduce energy costs. Or, if your business is replacing large numbers of lost tools, GPS or Bluetooth tracking tags may help your team keep track of these assets.
You may also want to adopt new technology that can help cut down on the workload of administrative staff — like programs that automate the creation of submittals or help staff manage budgeting.
For the moment, avoid overextending your business. If you need new construction equipment, renting will likely be a better option than buying outright.
5. Investigate Your Legal Options
Even with the right preparations, your projects may run behind schedule or become nonviable as a result of COVID-19. Running behind schedule can carry serious costs for construction companies — and if your business runs far enough behind, it may be subject to fees or considered in breach of contract.
Now is a good time to discuss contracts with in-house legal counsel and investigate the potential impact that delaying a project might have. Re-evaluate the delay or remedial clauses in your current project contracts. Depending on how they are written, COVID-19 may count as a force majeure event or equivalent. Factors like commercial impracticability or risk to life may allow you to extend a project’s contract time without risking a breach of contract.
While construction is considered essential, the serious potential health impacts of the novel coronavirus, along with disruptions to the supply chain and labor market, may fall under these potential exceptions.
6. Stay Flexible
There’s no telling how long this crisis will last. That means it’s going to be harder to plan how you’ll stretch existing resources and maintain good site hygiene policies for the duration of the outbreak.
Where possible, make decisions that give your business some latitude in how it operates. Over the next few months, some jobs may be temporarily paused or shut down. New work may be harder to come by. You may want to prepare to move materials, workers and equipment from site to site as certain jobs are paused.
Be upfront about current conditions with both your team and your business contacts. Consider working with your administrative staff and communications team to develop plans about how you will discuss sudden changes with employees, clients, subcontractors and suppliers. Good communication can help iron out some of the instability that naturally arises when so many projects are in flux.
Managing Construction Work During the COVID-19 Crisis
While some states have begun to loosen restrictions on construction work, the current public health crisis will likely persist into the foreseeable future. Construction companies will probably need to follow best practices for good hygiene for the next few months, if not the rest of the year. While disruptions to the construction material supply chain aren’t likely, companies should probably expect to see continued stress on clients and employees.
Good practices can help construction companies avoid the worst of the current crisis. Providing administrative and office staff with the option to work from home can help keep them safe. Requiring good hygiene on-site will also help with employee safety. Regular communication with clients and staff will be critical as working conditions change and project timelines shift. By following these precautions, you can continue working and stay safe.
Written by: Megan Ray Nichols, BOSS Contributor
Megan is a STEM writer and blogger at https://schooledbyscience.com/