By Kim Slowey
Although many coronavirus-related shutdown and stay-at-home orders are in still in place, the U.S. is on the road to loosening restrictions to keep the outbreak at bay. Since several areas of construction were considered essential, the industry has a leg up on others that have been completely shut down since the pandemic began.
But even as the country’s economy slowly comes back to life, top medical experts have warned that there could be a second wave of COVID-19 cases once more people come into contact with each other and in the fall when colder weather arrives and the regular flu season begins again.
So, how should contractors prepare for a potential second round of COVID-19? Construction Dive talked to a variety of industry experts for guidance.
A big concern among contractors is keeping employees safe as they continue working or return to projects. To that end, general contractors, including like Suffolk Construction, start by following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and then adjust them accordingly, said Mike DiNapoli, general manager of Suffolk’s Northern California operations.
“Our safety protocols, training and checklists will continue to evolve in response to new developments,” he said.
For example, Suffolk is staggering start times so that workers will be able to better adhere to social distancing guidelines. The company has also designated some stairways as one-way travel only and assigned workers to certain floors to reduce the chance that they will encounter each other.
Suffolk has also created the position of “COVID Ambassador.” The company will assign these individuals to Suffolk offices and jobsites to make sure that the protocols meant to protect employees from exposure to the novel coronavirus are implemented and followed.
Technology could also play a role in worker safety, DiNapoli said, and Suffolk is considering outfitting workers with wearable Triax monitors to help them maintain a safe distance from each other. Something else the company is looking into is infrared-based temperature tech to make jobsite screening for COVID-19 more efficient.
“Our goal is to have the safest jobsites in the entire country, and our strong commitment to jobsite safety will continue long after the COVID-19 crisis passes,” he said.
Likewise, Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction recently implemented Feevr, a device that uses artificial intelligence to detect elevated temperatures in groups of people to determine if any workers might have a fever without having to come into physical contact with the individual.
And Managers at Thornton Tomasetti are considering a shift to more remote field options, according to Marguerite Pinto, associate principal and a leader of the engineering firm’s New York forensic practice. This could include drones and 360-degree cameras to limit the number of people they must send to each project in the future.
“If someone can get a whole lot more imagery walking through with a 360-degree camera, then maybe we don’t need to send three or four people," she said.
Offering more opportunities for remote work — when the position allows — is also something on the mind of construction leaders, many of whom have been pleased with their firms' shift to telework since the pandemic started.
“We’ve seen employee engagement that is higher than when people are working in the office,” AECOM CEO Michael S. Burke said during a recent earnings call. “Our people are enjoying the additional flexibility of working at home.”
Thornton Tomasetti, Pinto said, already had people monitoring projects remotely, in addition to onsite visits, before the public health crisis, so the transition to working under stay-at-home orders has been relatively smooth. The company’s investment in technology that allows employees to work from anywhere was also in reaction to the staff’s desire to achieve a more satisfactory work-personal life balance.
“I do think that made it easier than if we were used to always going in and working at a desk,” she said.
There have been issues to overcome, however.
“The challenges come with making sure there’s still communication with your team,” Pinto said. “The one thing that is missing is … passing by people’s desks and talking and meeting face to face.”
To keep staff from feeling isolated, the company hosts running Zoom meetings so that anyone can connect any time if need be. This is in addition to the scheduled meetings that are held throughout the week.
“It doesn’t replace everything, but it’s just at least one way we’re touching base every day,” she said.
John Finamore, director of business development for Plainview, New York-based general contractor EW Howell Construction Group, said the framework that the company has established since the coronavirus hit the New York City metro area, forcing many to work from home, is a critical element in not only how the contractor can maintain operations now — 50% of the company’s work was considered essential — but how it will be able to respond to a resurgence of COVID-19 or any other significant disruption.
Granted, he said, there was a learning curve for those company employees not familiar with tools like Zoom, but he has the sense that everyone, including clients, designers and subcontractors are becoming more comfortable doing business this way.
Most importantly, he said, the company is now ready to react more quickly in the event of another mandated pause. Howell also has established a COVID-19 task force and modified its safety plans.
“It would simply be a matter of reactivating something that we would then keep adjusting,” he said.
Howell’s trade partners, Finamore said, can expect a new coronavirus-related provision in their subcontracts under which they will be required to adhere to the company’s new safety protocols. He expects customers will do the same, with those potential provisions passed on to subcontractors.
Additionally, construction leaders should be familiar with their contracts to know which events will trigger force majeure provisions that are geared toward providing contractors relief from certain obligations during unforeseen and impactful events.
Attorney Quinn Murphy with Sandberg Phoenix in St. Louis told Construction Dive that the broader the definition of force majeure in the contract, the better.
“The more narrowly you define the instances in which force majeure could be claimed, the more circumstances that are not listed get excluded from the application of the force majeure clause,” he said.
Two important areas contractors need to consider to be prepared for a coronavirus recovery and possible resurgence are workers’ compensation and general liability, according to Jim Marquet, managing director at Graham Co. Whether COVID-19 is covered under workers’ comp will vary from state to state, but indications are that some states intend to do so and do so aggressively, which would cost employers more money to defend claims and more in workers' comp premiums.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, he said, has mandated that the state’s employers must cover anyone who contracts COVID-19 through early July unless the employer can prove the employee did not contract it on the job.
“Somehow, you have to determine that they got it somewhere else,” he said.
No matter the state, however, contractors should be prepared to implement robust COVID-19 safety policies, make sure workers follow those policies, and then document compliance with those policies to a greater extent than they normally would. “That’s something that I think everyone is going to want to stay on top of,” Marquet said.
Contractors should also check that their general liability coverage does not have an exclusion for viruses or communicable diseases. General liability would cover third-party damages, not those incurred by employees.
For example, he said, if two contractors are working on a project side by side and one of those contractors tells its workers to forego masks and other adheres to coronavirus-related safety measures and then someone gets sick as a result, that could be a valid claim if the third party can prove negligence.
A hot insurance topic as it relates to COVID-19 is business interruption coverage, but Marquet said that this wouldn’t typically apply to the pandemic, even though so many businesses have sustained serious economic blows.
A valid business interruption insurance claim, he said, requires that the cause of the interruption be direct physical damage, like a fire. This is another issue that is moving through the courts.
“I think the likelihood of getting coverage [for COVID-19-related interruptions] — it’s not impossible, but it’s very low,” Marquet said. “The other possibility is that a state or the federal government will somehow backstop the policies and then have the insurance companies pay.”
The foundation for financial success moving forward, said Carl Oliveri, partner and construction practice leader at the accounting firm Grassi & Co., is to make sure workers are healthy, and that means promoting their well-being through policies that, for example, encourage them not to come to work if they’re not feeling well. “We have to change the culture and tell people, ‘stay home when you’re sick. It’s fine,’” he said.
In addition, the time is now to start budgeting and cash forecasting, the CPA said. Fortunately, these, along with billing and collection functions, can be done remotely. If they haven't already, contractors should think about investing in the technology that will allow them to operate the business side remotely during a resurgence of COVID-19.
Most important, Oliveri said, is to have a contingency plan in place covering all aspects of the business and to communicate that plan up and down the chain.
“Hoping that there's not going to be another pandemic is not a strategy at all,” he said. “The strategy here is to learn from what we just experienced. “
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