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REVISITING THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY, ONE YEAR LATER

On March 6, it will be one year since Imburgia Consulting posted about the unknown impact of Covid-19 on the construction industry. Back then, the ramifications of the coronavirus on our economy and in construction were unknown, with only hypotheses as a road map to guide the industry through this global pandemic. At that time, it was hoped that the virus would quickly or eventually peter out, with mask wearing, hand sanitizing and socially distancing not yet a way of life.

Fast forward eight months later to November, when California followed Virginia, Oregon and Michigan’s leads and adopted an emergency temporary standard that requires employers to have written prevention plans that include a notification procedure to let employees know when they have been exposed to COVID-19 on the job, steps to follow to remove employees who have tested positive or been exposed to the virus while still protecting their wages and benefits, and mandatory notifications to local health authorities when there are COVID outbreaks in the workplace.

Today, however, there remains a lack of consistency nationwide on how industries in the U.S. should move forward in dealing with the virus. For example, most American employers do not require COVID-19 testing for their employees, nor do they provide routine virus testing even when worksites have been shut down and then reopened. Costs and the complexity involved in running a comprehensive testing program were often cited as the reason why. This is a failure when it comes to being able to contain the virus because even as vaccines become readily available, the need for testing will remain since, like the flu, a COVID-19 vaccine may need to be tweaked or changed from year to year. And without a comprehensive testing program in place, many businesses may find themselves in a repeat loop of closing, reopening and closing again, which could be devastating to many companies already feeling the economic impact of the first virus wave. In addition, employees need to feel confident that they are working in safe environments, and routine testing can provide the assurances they need to know that their employers are minimizing risks and exposure.

In January, OSHA released guidelines for companies entitled, “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.” This report contains stronger work safety guidance and better identifies risks that can lead to exposure and contraction of the virus. It also guides employers on adopting policies that refrain from punishing workers when they stay home or raise concerns about COVID-19.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that construction workers be pushed to the front of the line, after essential workers, in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Lobbying efforts by ABC and other construction industry associations have also been largely success in making sure that construction projects throughout the U.S. be considered as essential projects, enabling construction firms that worked closely with health officials to continue business as normal or at least as normally as realistically possible during the pandemic.

Future Requirements

The world has changed in how we conduct business and how we shop and live our lives. This is evident by the normalcy now of mask wearing and hand sanitizing. In the future, additional precautions may become the norm at construction sites and other workplace environments.

One area that might see modifications is the requirement of vaccinations. This mandate will have to provide for exceptions, such as disabilities, religious beliefs and pregnancies, but it does not have to accept an individual’s medical beliefs or secular opinions when it comes to requiring all employees to be vaccinated. Vaccination requirements will also depend on the type of industry and if employees work remotely or on site. In the case of the construction industry, a field where employees are in direct contact with each other, requiring workers to be vaccinated could be a necessary safety mandate since not requiring COVID-19 vaccines could lead to charges that a company is failing to provide a safe workplace environment.

How this will play out in states like Texas and Mississippi, both of which announced this week that they are forgoing mask mandates and are reopening statewide, remains to be seen. Currently in Texas, 3,883,032 of its residents have received one dose of the vaccine, with only 13.4 percent fully vaccinated. While some view Texas and Mississippi’s reopening as a positive sign that the cases of COVID are on the decline, employers need to be vigilant about doing everything they can to create a safe and virus-free workplace.

Other Challenges

There are other challenges also facing many industries and the construction industry in particular. Prior to COVID-19, the construction field was grappling with a labor shortage. This shortage has only intensified due to job site shutdowns and employees who have refused to return to work.

In addition, Associated Builders and Contractors has stated that we are in the early stages of a non-residential spending downturn. And with more and more employees working from home, the need for large scale office buildings will also be impacted.

Construction on health care facilities may also significantly decrease, due to people forgoing elective surgery procedures and other non-essential medical procedures. Also, construction on nursing homes might fall since people might be hesitant to check family members into these facilities due to the risks of COVID-19 contagion. In addition, construction in the travel and hospitality sectors and sports and performance venues, and on governmental projects may be negatively impacted. On the other hand, building urgent care or surgery centers might increase, but this remains unknown.

Increasing Construction Costs

Lumber costs have dramatically increased due to COVID-19, and supply chain shortages and delivery challenges are also impacting the construction industry. This has led to companies hedging their bets by contracting with numerous suppliers rather than just one. However, getting materials where they need to be continues to be an issue since shipping and air travel have declined, leading to a reduction of materials being moved.

Physical Changes in the Workplace

Workspaces for employees will also continue to be impacted by COVID-19 and this will be reflected in the design of construction projects. This will include the need for six-foot distancing requirements, individual workspaces, and generous circulation paths. In addition, buildings will need to use sophisticated filtering systems and possibility raised access floors. Work areas will continue to combine open and closed offices, and meeting spaces will reflect proper social distancing with easily movable chairs and tables. Virtual meetings will also continue to be the norm.

In the construction industry, these changes in designs could evolve in the years to come. Working from home, once an option for the self-employed, will continue to be the new norm. Going to the office may be limited to those projects that need collaboration. And as mentioned, these team projects will be done in workplaces designed for social distancing. In addition, high rise buildings that encourage crowded lobbies and elevator areas will be less desirable, and multiple stall restrooms may also be replaced with one-stall facilities.

Other ways COVID-19 has impacted and will continue to impact the construction industry include virtual training programs, wearable clothing equipment that provides touchless and therefore safer technology, exoskeleton technology that enables workers to perform tasks with less effort and therefore less fatigue, and smart PPE that protects employees from hazardous materials.

Labor shortages will continue to be an issue in construction, but this can be met by hiring and recruiting skilled workers on a continuous basis in order to minimize gaps and overwork. Continuing to address the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to the industry and finding safe and reliable solutions in the process can help construction companies to be better prepared and as a result, more profitable.

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