Navigating Worksite Safety amid Covid-19

By Erin Ruddy

Resilience and innovation have always been central to the building industries. However, due to the increased restrictions and challenges associated with Covid-19, the additional processes and measures required to address worksite safety have hurled the sector into unprecedented territory.

Since March 2020, the pandemic has created a ‘new normal’ for anyone involved in the building sectors — one that will, no doubt, continue long after the virus is eradicated in a post-vaccine world. According to policy experts, it is likely that fire safety, emergency preparedness, WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) training and hazard recognition, among other required learning, will need to make room for infection control in the mandatory health and safety framework.

In the meantime, I spoke with Jordan Swail, project engineer with RJC Engineers, about the critical steps building teams, contractors and building management should be implementing to mitigate the spread of infection during all types of repairs, installations and renovations.

With years of experience restoring existing large buildings, Swail is well aware of the challenges Covid-19 has added to an already complicated process. From restaurants and retail shops, dental offices and hair salons, dry cleaners and hotels, commercial buildings are a revolving door to customers of all types. Ensuring they, as well as contractors, workers and building staff, remain safe has always been the priority. But nothing compares to what’s happening in this new Covid normal. Physical distancing measures are essential, now more than ever.

“For properties undergoing intensive work, construction of temporary work enclosures can allow contractor staff to maintain physical distancing from others,” says Swail. “Modular hoarding products or sealed poly tarps can be installed quickly to provide safe and sealed airtight enclosures.”

Swail adds that designated access paths to and from the worksite further reduce touch points and keep interactions with occupants at a minimum.

The optics of a physical barrier also provide peace of mind to those entering and leaving the building, while reducing the potential for encounters and access requests.

“Addressing the use and access of workers through shared spaces or common areas is an important part of reducing the risk of infection,” says Swail. “By requesting workers to limit elevator use to specific blocks of time, placing them on service, and thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting after, the likelihood of building occupants and workers encountering one another is significantly reduced.”

On top of this, he adds, it’s safe to say that by this point in the pandemic, everyone is accustomed to seeing (and using) hand sanitizing stations, lining up outside when maximum allowable occupants have been reached, and wearing masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE) — all best practices that will further reduce transmission.

“Elevators, storefronts and public corridors are high-risk areas where people may not follow physical distancing guidelines,” warns Swail. “Blocking off specific times of use for
workers can help reduce the risk of infection.”

Workplace screening and monitoring can also go a long way toward mitigating risks of infection on the job. Some individuals may have the virus but show little or no signs of illness (asymptomatic carriers), so it is important that employers and health officials know when they’ve worked and who they’ve been in contact with if they test positive for Covid-19. At the same time, it is equally important to keep track of any outside parties that enter the project site, such as contractors, vendors, owners and building occupants.

Everyone on the Same Page
While staggered schedules and access measures will deter crowds and enforce physical distancing, one cannot forget about the importance of communication. For employers, this means staying on top of pandemic guidelines and restrictions as they evolve, and passing this information on to employees at every opportunity. It also means posting Covid-19 policies for all to see, so everyone on the team is on the same page when it comes to sanitation practices, illness reporting protocols, physical distancing measures and scheduling strategies.

Ongoing communication is equally valuable in keeping building occupants safe around working teams.

For example, alerting tenants and building staff to all future construction work, whether large or small-scale, will help them prepare for the upcoming inconveniences and to steer clear of the project area when it comes time to get to work. Moreover, posting Covid-19 safety guidelines and reminders near the work will help re-enforce best practices for anyone within the area.

Establishing Specific Blocks of Time for Noisy Work
Like pre-pandemic days, noisy work has a higher potential for causing conflict and disrupting services within the building. Setting a proactive noisy work schedule — for example, two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening — will allow them to book meetings and plan accordingly, ensuring some degree of peace is maintained. Here again, it is important to communicate that schedule to building staff and tenants well in advance to avoid last minute confusion.

“Limiting noisy work to pre-scheduled times or phasing it across different portions of the building can go a long way to reduce complaints,” he says. “The world has changed and so has how, when and where people work. Providing ample notice and communicating all known disruptions helps maintain a productive, safe worksite while keeping conflicts at bay.”

Updating Contracts to Include Covid-19 Requirements
Most pre-existing construction contracts don’t address the current Covid-19 crisis, which has resulted in contractors relying on Ministry of Labour guidance and government regulations. To protect building occupants and owners, and to allow a higher standard of care, Swail advises that specific Covid-19 measures be worked into contracts, if they haven’t been already.

“With Covid-19 impacts anticipated well into 2021, we highly recommend adapting new contracts to address additional scheduling, access and PPE requirements,” he says. “The ideal time to implement these changes is before the contract is signed.”

Even the best-laid plans are vulnerable to the pandemic. As such, it’s important that potential delays, added costs and emergency scenarios are acknowledged and addressed by all parties before any work begins.

Preparing for the ‘New Normal’
The pandemic has turned an intense spotlight on workplace safety, particularly when it comes to recognizing and mitigating the risks for individuals who continue to work during a global health crisis. And while attentions may be focused on maintaining workforce safety today, it’s important for employers and all project stakeholders to learn from current challenges and plan ahead.

“Business continuity plans are not static documents,” says Janet Mannella, vice-president with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. “More than a few contractors learned this the hard way when they dusted off their plans at the start of the pandemic, but now the industry is acutely aware that business continuity planning needs to be a living, breathing exercise if they hope to be prepared for future, large-scale disruptions like this.”

With vaccines on the way, there is hope the building industry may soon return to some semblance of normal. Nevertheless, the events of 2020 have emphasized the need for heightened health and safety practices, consistent communication and future plans informed by current pandemic lessons.

Erin Ruddy is executive editor at MediaEdge Communications.

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