When COVID-19 closed all but the most essential businesses in many parts of the U.S. this spring, the men and women working on construction sites found themselves on the front lines of a battle that almost no one knew how to fight.
Despite the risks to themselves and their families, they found ways to keep working even as other businesses shut down. They scrambled for protective gear like N95 masks and gloves, committed to frequent handwashing and tool disinfection, and quickly got up to speed on the importance of social distancing and staggered work shifts.
Even in hard-hit areas, most construction work was deemed essential and workers stepped up to help mitigate the effects of the global pandemic in order to keep jobsites running. Contractors, subs, tradesmen and women, suppliers and others were among the first Americans challenged to create safe work places in the face of the deadly virus.
Despite confusion and a lack of government direction in the early days of the pandemic, contractors showed up for work while leading the way in learning about how to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, said Angela Hendrix, director of training and workforce development at General Building Contractors Association, the Philadelphia chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America.
“These contractors were still at their jobsites, confronting safety challenges and scenarios unlike anything we had ever seen,” she said. “Without peers elsewhere to learn from, we knew we needed to forge a path forward with other local leaders to keep everyone working safely.”
For this reason, America’s jobsite construction workers have earned the distinction of Construction Dive’s “Leader of the Year" for 2020.
National role model
Construction workers' dedication has earned national accolades. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said recently that other businesses could learn a lot from watching how construction operated during the pandemic.
“They put incredible safety protocols in place on these job sites,” said Walsh, a former union leader. “This is really an industry that we can learn from how to reopen — and reopen safely.”
This quick pivot to new jobsite protocols was based on the construction industry's decades of experience focusing on keeping workers safe on the job, said Greg Sizemore, vice president of HSE and workforce development for the Associated Builders and Contractors. The new practices, based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OSHA and state and local orders, precipitated "a complete paradigm shift of work methods and planning," he said.
Sizemore said for the most part construction workers have taken their leadership role in stride. Thousands across the country participated in national and local safety stand downs this spring to learn about best practices for combating the virus on the job.
"Employees have adapted to new modified jobsite practices, including staggered start times and lunch breaks, eating lunch in their car, wearing additional PPE, avoiding congested areas on the jobsite and participating in increased jobsite cleaning," he said. "Work processes have changed, workers have had to adapt to wearing new PPE and almost everyone has been affected in terms of how we do our work and what we do outside of work."