Working in a healthcare setting during a pandemic poses plenty of risks, but as Sharlen Electric learned, hazards can be reduced with careful planning and swift action.
Sharlen serves several healthcare providers, making it a natural fit for setting up COVID-19 care spillover sites at Chicago area hospitals.
By early April 2020, the family-owned contractor had started, and in some cases completed, temporary expansion projects at four community hospitals prior to the predicted Illinois peak of the coronavirus outbreak.
Referring to OSHA’s manual, “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID 19,” Sharlen workers practiced social distancing, worked at least 6 feet apart; wore N95 masks, goggles and gloves; avoided using the same protective equipment; made sure work areas were well-ventilated; and used sanitizing wipes for disinfecting tools
Temperatures were taken as electricians reported to job sites, and anyone with a temperature above 100.4 or other COVID-19 symptoms was sent home. Supervisors also provided updates on new information related to the coronavirus.
“Safety, as always, is number one for us,” said William Cullen, III, vice president of Sharlen. “Working in this environment has been a learning curve. There are no guidelines or procedures that can completely prepare you for something of this magnitude. My dad [William Cullen, II, founder of the company] said he’s never seen anything like it. [He said,] ‘Better you deal with it than me!’”
At the beginning, Sharlen faced a shortage of PPE. “We had donated a lot of our N95 masks to the hospitals we serve,” Cullen said, “so we were working with limited quantities of protective gear.”
Cullen mitigated the risk by limiting work crew size, staggering work shifts and meal breaks, and by having project managers work from home.
Completing projects before the surge of patients also helped, as with Palos Community Hospital in Palos Heights, Ill, which needed temporary trailers set up for use as testing sites or for up to 12 additional intensive care patient units.
Cullen worked quickly to determine how the setup would tap the hospital’s existing infrastructure. Sharlen shut down an elevator, moved a 400-amp feeder line and set up a power distribution panel for the trailers. The company also worked with other tradesmen to set up HVAC, lighting and fiber lines for data.