Social distancing strategies keep contractors productive

As many construction companies enter the post-COVID-19 environment, they have a challenging job ahead — to ensure their workers abide by social distancing guidelines and still remain productive.  
Even if they give their best efforts, though, contractors should realize that they likely will not be able to keep workers at a safe distance from each other at all times.  
“At the end of the day,” said Greg Skalaski, executive vice president for Shawmut Design and Construction’s West division, “you cannot fully social distance. However, what you can do is plan and understand how best to address that.”
As far as schedules go, almost all of Gaston Electrical’s projects in the Boston metro area were shut down on March 16 and were closed for more than two months. In many parts of the country where similar mandatory stay-at-home orders were in place, all contractors are playing catch up and having to revise their completion plans.
“We're fortunate that our customers and general contractors understand,” said Michael Weber, principal at Gaston. “They are true partners of ours … so they understand what we're going through.”
Despite the general consensus that getting up to speed will be a challenge, there are several strategies contractors are using to gain some ground during the recovery.
Planning the work day
At Shawmut, Skalaski said, each morning starts with intensive pretask planning with each trade about the day ahead.
“It is a much more deliberate process than just getting on site and [starting from] where you were yesterday,” he said. “And that deliberate process helps us with the social distancing in general.”
Crews sketch out where they will be during the day so that they don’t end up working too close to each other. If it is necessary that two people work closer than the recommended 6 feet, Skalaski said, then the crew needs to fill out a form identifying their plan to carry out the task as safely as possible and what personal protective equipment (PPE) will be necessary.
Of course, COVID-19, said Weber, comes up during the subcontractor’s planning sessions, which typically come in the form of daily huddles and weekly toolbox talks. “What we're saying to them is, ‘If you don't feel well, don't come to work,” he said.
Flexible work schedules
Approximately 95% of Gaston’s employees are working schedules similar to what they were before the pandemic, Weber said, and the other 5% are working overtime, although the electrical union has told the company it can use flexible start times and other shift alternatives without added costs. The company already staggers work and lunch breaks to reduce the number of employees in any one spot.
However, if it comes down to that, Weber said, the company would have to figure out who would work the irregular hours, taking into consideration employee circumstances such as who has child care or other conflicts.
“We do the best we can to work with our employees when it comes to those things,” he said, “but the reality is that we have really good people who will say, ‘We understand the job's got to get done. It's our job to do it. We'll work with you to figure it out.’”
Shawmut has also implemented a rotating two-week schedule for its office staff. “We've split our folks into a group A and a group B,” Skalaski said. “Group A comes in and works Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of one week. They work from home on Friday, and they work from home the following week. That following week is when group B comes in.” Group B then mimics group A’s schedule. 
Aside from allowing the company to disinfect office space on Fridays, this setup is a way to make sure employees are safer at work.
“If you do come into contact with somebody that's infected during those four days you're [in the office], it's still in the incubation period, so you're not transmitting it to others,” Skalaski said. “You would more than likely see symptoms in the next 10 days and know not to come in the following week.”
On construction projects, he said, Shawmut has staggered shifts — having crews start and end their shifts at different times of the day — and worked off hours if necessary to keep the numbers of people on the project at a safe level but still maintain productivity.
Streamlining screenings
Gaston uses infrared temperature technology — contactless and speedy — to screen everyone entering the jobsite, making sure that no one is admitted if their reading exceeds each local jurisdiction’s mandate, typically between 100.2 degrees and 100.5 degrees.
So far, Gaston has not had to turn away any of its employees for an elevated temperature, Weber said.
Shawmut has been able to maintain its schedules in part because of an in-house app that makes checking into its jobsites fast and efficient. Skalaski said, 
Workers can check in online using a job-specific QR code, he said, and the app also is able to aid in contact tracing. 
“It alerts our superintendent if anybody has been exposed, or if they've said yes to any of the [screening] questions — shortness of breath, fever or close proximity with somebody that's known to have [COVID-19],” Skalaski said. “All the right questions.”
In fact, he said, the app has made it so easy for workers to check in and begin their day that the company has not seen the loss of productivity that can happen when queues start to form at jobsite entrances.
Sensible PPE rules
Both Gaston and Shawmut arm their workers with face shields, masks, face coverings and gloves — all the PPE to help keep them safe. However, those rules can be tweaked to allow for comfort and a break when circumstances warrant.
Weber said that Gaston encourages those working in close proximity to take breaks every 15 minutes, giving them the opportunity to move away, take down their masks and get some fresh air for a few minutes. Also, some of Gaston’s projects involve solitary outside work where workers can forego masks while they’re alone.
It’s important to offer employees this relief, he said, especially in the heat of summer.
Productivity wise, Weber said, having to social distance while trying to meet a schedule is not ideal. “But we've been back almost three weeks or so for some of our jobs, and our employees are really getting the hang of it,” he said.​