Date to reopen city's non-essential projects remains unclear
Temperature checks at the jobsite gate and portable toilets equipped with hot water are set to become regular features at Boston construction sites going forward as city officials put into action new safety rules in the wake of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Contractors working on essential projects during the outbreak, from small home repair jobs to major health-care projects, are now required to submit safety plans to city officials, along with a sworn affidavit pledging to implement them.
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But the new rules, which went into effect April 27, will also be the rules of the road for Boston's construction industry as the city slowly reopens work in the coming months on routine nonessential projects, from residential towers to new restaurants, said Patrick Brophy, chief of operations in the mayor’s office.
“As we were one of the first major American cities to pause construction, we wanted to make sure we had given a lot of thought on how we would restart,” he said, adding that there is no specific timeline to restart construction beyond essential or emergency projects, with that decision up to Mayor Martin J. Walsh (D) and city public health officials.
COVID-19’s toll on the state continues to mount, with more than 3,000 deaths as of April 28. “It’s the million-dollar question,” Brophy says. “We are going to be guided by public safety and the public health data that comes in. Everyone is itching to get back to work.”
But when Boston does decide to start reopening its construction industry, it is likely to happen over a series of steps, with two weeks of advance notice to give contractors whose projects have remained shut down time to pull together safety plans, he added.
City officials now are reviewing safety plans submitted by contractors that seek permission to continue or finish work on a range of projects. Overall, there are more than 250 projects—many small residential home repairs, as well as some larger healthcare work—that fall under the essential work guidelines, Brophy said.
In their safety plans, contractors are expected to address six different areas, such as measures they plan to put into place before each shift to ensure workers infected with the coronavirus aren’t allowed onto the construction site. As they review the safety plans, city officials are also looking for measures aimed at asking workers “probing questions” related to their health, such as whether they feel sick, have been coughing, or experiencing other potential coronavirus symptoms, Brophy added.
Contractors must also provide hand-washing stations with soap and warm water, which in some cases might require wiring portable toilets in order to heat water, as well as a range of protective gear for their workers. The list includes facial coverings or masks, eye protection, face shields, gloves and Tyvek suits.
The safety plans must also detail how contractors plan to maintain the required 6 ft of social distancing between workers, including on elevators and hoists and in the queues for them, as well as during breaks. This could also mean limiting particular floors to different trades or staging work differently so various trades are on site at different times, according to Brophy.
Contractors also must provide extensive COVID-19 safety training, and have a plan in place if a worker becomes infected.
While city inspectors won’t shut down a worksite for minor infractions, major breaches won’t be tolerated, Brophy said.
“We expect 100 percent compliance or the job will be shut down,” he said.
A possible first step for reopening might involve hospital expansions unrelated to COVID-19 and some non-emergency road work.
Boston’s construction unions in early April pushed to shut down all construction in the state out of safety concerns amid the deadly pandemic, clashing with Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who has pushed to keep some major projects moving, including housing and infrastructure.
But strains of the prolonged shutdown have started to show.
Two weeks after ordering Massachusetts union members not to show up for anything but essential projects, Joseph Byrne, executive secretary of the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, reversed course and told members they were free to return to construction sites starting April 21.
Over the interim, the union said it had talked extensively with contractors about their safety plans and measures that needed to be taken to protect their workers.
Members are now free to work on essential projects, which include “health-care facilities, public works, infrastructure, schools, housing, roads, and bridges.” The union represents 10,000 members in Massachusetts.
“There are still concerns about COVID-19 in Massachusetts, but the union believes that our contractors and members are committed to creating and maintaining a safe work environment,” Byrne wrote. “For that reason, we are advising you that, effective April 21, we are not directing you to cease working on what have been classified as ‘essential services.’”