The electrical construction industry hasn’t been spared the need for new safety protocols that minimize exposure to the coronavirus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency deemed electrical contractors essential workers and their work largely continued through the pandemic.
As evidenced below, contractors nationwide have taken up the mantle, implementing a range of measures designed to support greater sanitization, social distancing, facial coverage and more, in an effort to help ensure the safety of employees, customers and their families.
New protocols in place
At Brownsville, Wis.-based Michels Corp., which has more than 40 locations throughout the United States and Canada, the establishment of new safety protocols has been far-reaching.
“We implemented best cleaning practices of tooling, equipment, vehicles and job-site trailers and added portable sinks/wash stations wherever possible or else deployed our own portable sanitizer buckets for our mobile field crews,” said Heidi Meyer-Bremer, director of health, safety and environment at Michels.
In addition to requiring all employees to self-monitor their health prior to coming to work each day, “We revamped our work tasks to ensure that adequate physical distancing could be maintained and determined what type of mask or additional PPE was necessary to keep our workforce safe based on each jurisdiction and/or client’s requirements,” Meyer-Bremer said. “We also assembled an internal COVID team that was tasked with providing direction to employees and supervisors if/when someone tests positive or was in close contact with an individual who was. We also created a contact-tracer position to help trace down all close contacts at work.”
The nearly 60-year-old Southern Contracting Co., San Marcos, Calif., has been similarly committed to minimizing their employees’ risk of exposure on the job in addition to instructing workers on city, county, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines and procedures for working through the pandemic.
“All crews have been issued hand sanitizer, face coverings, disinfectant spray and procedures for disinfecting equipment and tools,” said Pat Baker, safety director. “They’ve also been encouraged to social distance whenever possible, spread out when taking breaks and refrain from sharing food or utensils. In addition, water coolers are no longer used—we supply bottled water instead—and workers are directed to do most, if not all, work outdoors in well-ventilated areas when possible.”
On the medical side, employees have been advised not to report to work if they feel ill at all; their return to work depends on the results of an evaluation by a doctor and confirmation that their illness isn’t COVID-related.
At Shea Electric, Oshkosh, Wis., “We’ve put a number of new practices/processes in place to protect employees and safely host employers and fellow subcontractors on the job site,” said Desmond Vincent, journey wireman and safety director.
Among those, the staff members, job sites and service vans have been outfitted with hand sanitizer, spray sanitizer and wipes for shared tools and surfaces. There are also disposable face coverings and cloth face coverings with the company logo.
As for employee practices, “We’ve amended our job hazard analysis (JHA) to include COVID-19 employee self-screening questions, promoting employer policy/procedure awareness and providing JHA results for management review daily,” he said. “We promote social distancing by supporting and enabling remote work for office and field staff, minimizing hours of occupancy in office space, requesting that employees don’t ride-share and conducting meetings virtually whenever possible, while moving any necessary in-person meetings to much larger spaces than the typical conference room as a precaution.”
He noted that Shea Electric has been proactive about employee education and sending staff members regular updates on new practices and procedures, while communicating any concerns.
“We also utilize COVID-19 Toolbox Talks to educate staff,” Vincent said.
Managing the response
Meyer-Bremer, Baker and Vincent confirm their employees have had mixed responses to some of the new safety protocols instituted but overall have been very supportive.
At Shea Electric, “There’s no known resistance by field employees,” Vincent said. “Employee adoption of the ‘new normal’ has been widely accepted and practiced. Shea Electric has a lot of experience working in active healthcare facilities and is very aware of and used to employing best practices in these settings, so we’re not aware of any hesitance to work in facilities by employees.”
According to Meyer-Bremer, the learning curve has proven a bit steeper at Michels.
“At the beginning, it was hard because everyone was learning about COVID in real time and we were constantly making changes to our action plan,” she said. “Once everyone realized that this wasn’t going away quickly, they embraced the new work practices. However, it’s been a challenge as the pandemic has continued to drag on and people are beginning to feel burnout from all of the extra stresses and challenges that COVID has presented, not only at work, but at home, too.”
“I think that employees now feel more comfortable with all of the new practices in place, although there are a few who are still hesitant, especially if there was exposure by a close contact on the crew,” she said.
“For the most part, all of our employees have been receptive,” Baker said. “There was some push-back on mask-wearing, especially among those who were working alone in a wide-open space with few or no other people in the area, and fogging glasses were also an issue during the heat of the summer, but we worked through that by sampling a number of anti-fog glass wipes until we ultimately found one that worked effectively. Getting employees to stay home when they either had COVID symptoms or exposure has been an ongoing challenge, but they’re getting better at it. There were a few instances in the early stages of the pandemic when some employees had concerns, but this was more due to the lack of information, conflicting information or misinformation being put out there. Our employees were more concerned that we would be shut down.”
Here to stay?
Experts believe that a number of COVID-related safety practices may remain in place long after the pandemic.
Among them, “I think one thing that will stick across the electrical contracting workforce in general is the policy of staying home if you’re sick,” Meyer-Bremer said. “We had a policy on that prior to the pandemic, but some people with symptoms would still come into work because that’s what you did. Armed with the knowledge that we now have on how quickly this pandemic (and other viruses) can spread and wipe out an entire crew or department in an office, I think that companies will increasingly enforce their ‘stay home when sick’ policies and practices,” she said.
“The policy of not coming to work if you’re ill and only returning back to work once you’re well will be a practice we’ll continue to follow,” Baker agreed. “We’ll also continue to use bottled water because it eliminates the need to sanitize the water cooler and purchase cups. It also makes it easier to have an adequate supply of water on hand,” he said.
“I predict that widespread face covering requirements will remain in practice when working in healthcare facilities,” Vincent said. “Scientific data has proven that face coverings provide protection from airborne virus transmission, and we have a duty to protect our host employers and their guests when we’re in their facilities.”
The safety experts share lessons they learned.
Flexibility is key—“If anything, we’ve learned a lot about how resilient our workforce is and about their ability to remain flexible and adapt to quickly changing rules of engagement,” said Heidi Meyer-Bremer, Michels Corp. “It helped us to be better prepared as an organization for a next time—if or when there’s a next time.”
Vigilance is required—According to Desmond Vincent, Shea Electric, adherence to protocols is necessary for everyone’s safety. “My biggest fear is complacency, letting our guard down, and returning too early to prepandemic behaviors, both at and away from the workplace,” he said. “We can see people acting less responsibly once a vaccine is rolled out and as the number of cases declines, so ultimately we must police ourselves and the behaviors of those around us. I’m also curious what actions host employers may take relative to the requirement of a COVID-19 vaccination to enter their facilities. It’s much like the requirement of a flu shot in order to work in healthcare facilities.”
Safety matters—“We’ve had several employees come down with COVID or COVID symptoms and report to work, and we’ve had to shut down several jobs for the quarantine period,” said Pat Baker, Southern Contracting. “However, we haven’t had one case of COVID spread from one employee to another, and I believe that the combination of working outdoors and following protocols contributed to this positive outcome.” —S.B.