Bridging the Distance

Construction safety

Electrical contractors are navigating unprecedented times. The reality of work in the time of a pandemic presents striking contrasts across states and regions, with one key priority: keeping electricians and communities safe. Secondary to health is the very real worry of shuttered projects or the looming threat of layoffs for every business.

As the novel coronavirus infection rates rise across the nation, electrical contractors have been making decisions about how to prevent transmission among those in their offices and on construction sites, how to prevent or minimize furloughs or layoffs, how to move electricians where they are needed most, and how to understand the constantly shifting requirements for social distancing, quarantines and even sheltering in place.

“COVID-19 has thrown the world a curve ball,” said Tom Shreves, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s Greater Cleveland Chapter. “Contractors are going to need a big bat to take it on. Each state, each community and each contractor is then taking its own approach to ensure the best for the health of those around them, first and foremost.”

In this fast-changing landscape, guidance has emerged from several sources to help contractors move forward. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) developed Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce to help protect communities, and NECA’s Government Affairs team helped ensure the electrical contracting industry was on that list. For some contractors, that meant temporarily closed projects were able to reopen.

Against that backdrop, Michael Johnston, NECA executive director of standards and safety, developed safety guidelines for managing COVID-19 on job sites. If a project remains open, it’s part of the contractor’s role to mitigate potential harm to workers, such as infection.

As of the fourth week of March when this story went to press, the number of confirmed cases was growing exponentially in the United States. While much of Ohio is shut down, Shreves said the Cleveland area hadn’t seen many projects closed due to the pandemic. On the other hand, most projects in California and in Boston have come to a complete, if temporary, standstill. New York and Washington state—which have the largest infection rates thus far, have seen a number of projects shut down at the time of publication. However, the status is so fluid that a few hours, let alone days, can change everything.

In Ohio, Shreves said he considered himself lucky to have business managers to work and strategize with who he said share a stabilizing and common-sense approach to challenges such as contract obligations, the job security of their electricians and insurance coverage.

“We all believe if we make decisions on what’s best for the industry first, contractors can weather this storm,” he said. “I think putting everything in perspective, we’re doing quite well.”

The best approach is not to lose sight of the details in a panic, Shreves said. Focusing on solving individual problems will help move contractors through the crisis. Contractors need to address the shutdowns the way they have managed other challenges, he said.

“This is just another problem to solve,” he said.

Shreves said that, for those in the industry, whether contractors, electricians or project owners, the biggest fear is the unknown.

Johnston and NECA have made an effort to reduce the level of unknown, and, thereby, the anxiety, with common sense. Johnston recommends contractors take on the role of protecting people first.

“We must protect people, while focusing on and attacking the problem,” he said, adding that complete solutions are complex.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the risk of transmission for those employed outside the healthcare sector is still low, Johnston said. Since not all construction sites and operations need to be shut down, contractors should address safety at each site individually,

“Be mindful of significant contract obligations and insurance concerns,” he said.

NECA’s guidelines include implementing and improving sanitation on the job site; owners and contractors should work together on this effort. Sanitation and infection control could be the deciding factor between continuing operations and shuttering a project.

Shreves believes that the guidelines helped calm nerves among its members.

”People don’t have answers to questions, so getting that [set of guidelines] out quelled a lot of anxiety,” he said.

Shreves, founder and former president of TS Electric, was a contractor himself for decades, so he understands the stress. However, he pointed out the industry was fully able to manage this crisis.

“Electrical contracting is a rough-and-tumble business. They’re used to dealing with problems,” Shreves said. “This may be the biggest curve ball, but NECA is providing us with a bat big enough to knock it out of the park.”

New York has the highest known rate of infection in the United States. The number of infected people was still rising as businesses started shutting offices and enabling telework, if possible, for social distancing. E-J Electric Installation Co. took a systematic approach in transitioning office staff to self-isolation in their homes. That meant they sent home payroll and accounting staff, and—in a staggered fashion—sent engineers and estimators home to do their work, said Anthony Mann, E-J Electric president.

The company is still open for business, and it offers some critical infrastructure support and construction, including maintaining traffic signals and building and maintaining ITS systems for the state, Mann said. The state’s and city’s transportation office had determined these critical services needed to stay active “so we are still maintaining them.” However, positive test results have been found at almost 20% of all the sites tested in New York.

Some projects, however, include emergency expansions of facilities to handle the potential influx of patients, a lot of them preparing for what may come.

“We’re focused No. 1 on employee safety. That’s critical for every decision we make,” Mann said. “We all have a responsibility not to transmit this disease. At this point, we’re not really even focusing on [business] recovery.”

The contractor has opened lines of communication, including holding daily management calls and sending company-wide texts to get information to the entire E-J Electric team immediately.

In Boston, the approach has been sheltering in place, said Glenn Kingsbury, NECA Greater Boston Chapter executive director. Like many U.S. cities right now, Boston had numerous large-scale construction projects underway.

“There are many, many high-rise buildings that are now shuttered,” Kingsbury said.

Like many companies and organizations, the chapter was trying to provide the proper messaging in a world where everything changes moment by moment. Kingsbury recalled that the chapter had a statement ready for contractors on Mon., March 16, first at 8 a.m., then 10; when the situation changed, that statement was pushed to noon, then to 2 p.m. when full closure hit.

For those working in Boston, COVID-19 has meant mass layoffs of electricians. Therefore, for the NECA chapter, managers were working with the local union to mitigate the impact on contractors and their employees, while the building trades were also in contact with the city of Boston and public health officials.

While the Boston shutdown was issued for two weeks, there was an understanding that it could easily be extended. The policy’s intention is to stay ahead of outbreaks, rather than wait for an infection.

“We’re hoping to get projects up and running as soon as possible. We hope at least we’ll have some projects that can open with restrictions with safety protocols,” Kingsbury said, adding that, for those working outside of the city of Boston, “everyone is following OSHA regulations.”

The virus has generated some new projects. Boston’s Carney Hospital became the first dedicated care center for treating coronavirus patients. That kind of rededication, by Carney and other hospitals around the country, requires maintenance and renovation to ensure proper ventilation systems, increased energy service where new beds are being added and other services.

At least one Boston electrical contractor is providing temporary service for emergency COVID-19 triage, setting up extra power for hospital expansion.

“We know this is going to have a dramatic impact. It already has,” Kingsbury said.

For contractors, laying off workers is the last thing they want to do, so they’re focusing on furloughs instead, ensuring the workers get through the quarantine periods and back to work.

Washington state had the first COVID-19 case in the United States, one of the highest rates of infection and the second highest fatality rate after New York, so the Seattle area has been practicing social separation and sheltering in place, although Gov. Jay Inslee had not closed construction projects at the time of publication.

McKinstry Electric, Seattle, uses what its electrical construction director Daniel Ronco called a “‘Put People First’ value,” which calls for the company to be part of the solution.

“We are working diligently to remain nimble in our response to this ever-changing situation,” Ronco said.

The company enacted a comprehensive business-continuity plan to maintain operations, while also ensuring the necessary construction projects are managed safely and continuing to provide clients “exceptional support” for their facilities, he said.

As part of the plan, Ronco said, the company has a COVID-19 task force in place to monitor, quickly assess risk and act immediately at any site, should the company learn of infection or exposure. In the meantime, company management monitors the World Health Organization, and the state and county public health organizations to ensure they can offer the best guidelines.

“We have asked employees in all of our offices to work from home when possible,” he said, adding this is even while many of McKinstry’s project sites remain open. Construction teams were taking necessary precautions to ensure their own health and safety. The company’s service department remained in full operation and at full strength with technicians in the field continuing to work on preventive maintenance, Ronco said. Staff continue project work and break-fix calls on its normal schedule and typical staffing levels, as well.

And while the company was not working on any healthcare buildouts as a result of the virus (by March 20) the company’s teams “stand ready to support infrastructure modifications that enable critical environments like labs, clinics and healthcare institutions to meet the evolving needs of the local community,” Ronco said.

Health orders expanded across Bay Area counties in Northern California before the Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire state on March 19 with no specific end date. Public works projects were continuing, said NorCal NECA Chapter executive director Greg Armstrong.

“We have 80 [contractor] members and we’ve talked to almost all of them over the past two and a half days,” Armstrong said.

Some contractors are creating crisis-management plans, some are taking temperatures of their employees at work sites, and he said they try to remain mindful of some of the challenges people are facing at home. One contractor set up an internal company email where management offered food, toilet paper deliveries or other services to those in need. That offer, Armstrong said, has brought their team closer together and generated more offers for help.

And while some offices are entirely closed, some have a skeletal crew that stay away from any social or physical contact.

“They go into their office and close the door, basically,” Armstrong said.

One source of early confusion was just what government dictates meant for each project.

“This is uncharted territory,” he said.

Some general contractors took a broader interpretation as to what was an essential infrastructure project and what wasn’t. In some cases, they demanded electrical contractors to continue working while the EC was unconvinced the project was essential.

The solution was to get written statements from owners and general contractors before returning to work.

Contractors are also trying to determine the best way to close down jobs when necessary and ensure electricians can collect unemployment. Some jobs in Northern California are already ramping back up as they are found to be essential, based on county and governor orders, Armstrong said.

The central point, Armstrong said, has been sharing information and using common sense, “and keeping anxiety down.”

When it comes to electrical contractor status as essential work, according to CISA guidelines, state and local officials should use their own judgment in implementation directives and guidance. Similarly, critical infrastructure industry partners should use their own judgment to ensure continued operations of critical infrastructure services and functions. All decisions should appropriately balance public safety while ensuring the continued delivery of critical infrastructure services and functions.

Ultimately, it’s time to take a deep breath, Shreves said. Collective bargaining has answers to many of the contractors’ questions. The first effort is trying to find another place to put electricians to work.

“You’ll find the most powerful tool you have is on your shoulders. I understand people freaking out,” he said, ”but common sense will be what solves the problems.”

“I think this will level out,” Shreves said.

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