Industry adapts to the new normal
“This is a unique and challenging time,” says Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the Greater Boston Plumbing Contractors Association (GBPCA), referring to the conditions that the coronavirus pandemic has imposed on the construction industry. “Our contractors have had to put on new hats. Now they are not just construction and business experts, but also contagious disease and medical health specialists.”
Welcome to the new normal. Once GBPCA contractors and Local 12 plumbers processed and dealt with the initial shutdown of most projects on which they had been working and other immediate effects of the pandemic in mid-March, they then had to figure out how to cope with the longer-term fallout. Like everybody else, they are anxious for a vaccine or treatment to emerge so the virus is no longer a threat. Until then, it’s not exactly business as usual.
A building trades group convened to help prepare for the reopening of construction sites that had been closed in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville (where the bulk of the region’s major projects are based). Among the participants were general contractors, plumbing and other subcontractor reps, and business agents. They met via conference calls, videoconferencing, and other remote means to talk about issues such as safety and hygiene protocols. Discussions centered on CDC and OSHA guidelines and recommendations.
Taking temperatures, staggering starts, and other modifications
Sites began reopening in May, and most have since resumed. So what do they look like? The details vary slightly from project to project, but they typically include a core group of updates and changes. Most of them mirror the kinds of safeguards that can be found at many places where people now gather. These include:
- Screening procedure – People admitted onto construction sites have to confirm that they do not have a fever by having their temperatures taken. They also have to answer a series of self-identifying questions indicating that they are symptom-free and have not been exposed to anyone with the virus.
- Staggered starts – Workers from different trades arrive at job sites at different assigned times in the morning so as not to overwhelm the screening process and to prevent large groups from having to congregate in one place.
- Personal protective equipment – Everyone has to wear a facemask, which sometimes has to be an N95 mask, as well as work gloves. In some cases, face shields are also specified.
- Social distancing – Where possible, workers are required to remain six feet apart from others. For high-rise jobs, only five people are allowed in service elevators, including the operators, and they are asked to face away from one another.
It may sound like a lot, but those on the ground say that workers at job sites have gotten into a routine and have been able to carry on with their work without too much interruption.
“It’s different, no doubt, but we can adapt,” Barry Keady, Local 12 business agent, says. He notes that when he started, workers at construction sites didn’t always wear hardhats or safety glasses. With regulations and guidelines now universal, nobody gives donning items like that a second thought. “The masks we have to wear are just another piece of PPE,” adds Keady. “It’s a matter of safety. With COVID-19, we have to be aware of the conditions and deal with them to the best of our training.”
One thing that is different is the size of crews. To accommodate social distancing, there are often limits on the number of workers that can be together on a floor or in a space at any one time. According to Paul Dionne, president of GBPCA contractor P.J. Dionne Company, project timelines are longer because there are less people doing the work. While almost 100% of the jobs that the contractor had been working on have resumed, Dionne says he has less people in the field.
There is also the extra cost of conducting business. Contractors say that they often have to pay a premium for items such as N95 masks and disinfectant wipes that are in high demand and short supply. There is also the time and energy they have to spend sourcing the items.
There is a new normal at Local 12’s training center as well. With physical classes cancelled, the instructors have shifted to remote learning. The apprentices and teachers have adapted, but the situation is not ideal, says Rick Carter, the center’s director.
“It’s been a challenge. It’s unconventional for us,” Carter says. Much of the curriculum is developed around practical, hands-on instruction presented in a shop setting. Lessons like that do not translate well when presented online.
With the fall session slated to resume in September, Carter is hopeful that at least some of the classes can be held in person. “We don’t want to do remote unless it’s absolutely necessary,” the director says. The training center will keep an eye on how state guidelines progress for getting back in the classroom. It is possible that the session may be a hybrid of in-person and remote classes.
What might the future hold?
The pandemic has not only presented immediate health and safety concerns. It has also wreaked havoc with the economy and may lead to lasting changes that could have an impact on the region’s construction industry. After many years of unprecedented growth and expansion, there could be a pullback on new projects–or not.
“Medium-term, I don’t expect much to change,” says Ed Strickland, president of William M. Collins Company. “All of our contractors have a pretty good backlog of work. Longer-term, the impact remains to be seen.”
Dionne is bullish on the future. “I’m an optimist. I see things bouncing back,” he says. There has been speculation that with so many people working remotely as a result of the pandemic, the practice may become more ingrained and the demand for office space may decrease. Dionne isn’t so sure. “I think people want to be in social environments. Yes, people can work from home. But I don’t think we’re wired to work there for the rest of our careers.” Office towers and mixed-use projects that include office space have been driving much of the construction boom in the Boston area.
Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager, is optimistic as well. “On the residential side, we see a significant lineup of projects and every indication that there will be more to come,” he says. “Talking with our contractors, they are bidding on plenty of new projects.”