When the statewide construction industry fired back up on May 7, Dan LeMore and his team at The Christman Co. had already tweaked their approach to projects in response to the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic.
While a wide majority of construction companies and projects were put on hold after an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Christman stayed relatively active with essential projects in the health care and wastewater industries.
“The things you are seeing (now) as far as safety protocols, we have been doing for several weeks, including dealing with positive COVID-19 cases, contact tracing and figuring out a plan for each project,” said LaMore, senior vice president of West Michigan operations for Christman Co., which is headquartered in Lansing with offices in Grand Rapids and Detroit.
“We definitely feel like this past seven weeks of experience have been valuable so we can do a good job moving forward and helping others that are just starting out to move forward more positively,” he added.
While Christman didn’t necessarily have to skip a beat in its approach to construction projects, many companies continue to ramp up operations and now must comply with a new executive order that lays out an extensive list of required safety practices and precautions.
The order doesn’t just apply to construction companies, but also building trades, like electricians, plumbers and HVAC technicians.
In order to resume operations and comply with the executive order, construction companies and related businesses must satisfy 19 different standards. A small sampling of those requirements include:
• Restricting the number of workers present on the premises to only those who are absolutely necessary to complete the work.
• Conducting a daily entry screening protocol for workers and visitors as they enter the worksite in order to identify people with COVID-19 symptoms and to track exposure to individuals who might be suffering from the infectious disease.
• Wearing mandatory face shields or masks when workers are not able to consistently maintain six feet of separation from one another.
Life on job sites is now markedly different for construction companies. At Christman, LeMore described a few of the changes, such as foreman huddles every morning to promote enhanced communication and coordination on a job site.
Christman also has implemented a smartphone app that allows workers to scan in when they enter a job site and answer four COVID-19-related questions before undergoing a visual inspection. The company also uses infrared thermometers on some jobs to test for fevers.
In addition to that, Christman also uses a third-party cleaning service that’s responsible for circulating around a job site to clean common contact points like door knobs, handrails and ladders.
“As we’ve lived through this over the last few weeks, the thing that stood out to me is that our priorities have to be the safety of the workers and the safety of the occupants when (when the project is in) an occupied building,” LeMore said. “The second thing is communication.”
With a bevy of new restrictions to follow and additional expenses to contend with, project inefficiencies naturally become issues, especially in an industry that hinges on timelines and budgets.
“There are some impacts here that will slow things down — they will cause some inefficiencies in the workplace and on the construction site, specifically where you have to restrict the number of workers present,” said Bruce Courtade, an attorney with Grand Rapids-based Rhoades McKee PC, who specializes in commercial and residential construction matters.
“It allows no more than what’s strictly necessary to perform the work,” he said. “The construction industry is a lot of hurry up and wait. You will have a particular segment of the job that has to be done today so you will flood that area with a crew to get it done. If you’re strictly following these guidelines, if you can do it with two people, then you do it with two people.”
LeMore of Christman agreed with that notion, but also said that it “doesn’t mean that completion dates are slipping, it means they’re harder to achieve.”
Ada-based Erhardt Construction Co. is another construction company that enacted new safety measures even before the industry-wide shutdown of non-essential projects on March 23. Safety director Nate Potter said the company has gone on to implement a comprehensive safety plan, guided by the continued information and recommendations released via government orders and through organizations like the CDC.
Potter said although the new safety measures have caused disruption to projects, it has been relatively easy to overcome through communication with project owners.
“I think the (clients) we’re working with, we have a really good group at this point who are very much understanding of the times,” Potter said. “When we went over our response plan, there was understanding. This is our risk management plan for their project. We want to keep their project moving, keep it as on-schedule as possible, yet at the same time asking them for grace to help us with the schedule.
“We’ve had really good conversations, and the health and safety of the workers is paramount above all else. They all agree.”
These new measures have been put into place to deal with the new normal, but the question remains of what might happen when, and if, life returns to the old normal. Some companies are mulling over the idea of implementing these changes indefinitely.
At Erhardt, Potter said that he saw a lot of benefit to the new sign-in process and leveraging technology for it. But he was not enthusiastic about all the new measures in place.
“Some of the PPE requirements will be difficult to deal with,” Potter said. “I’m not sure how long we will have to go with the masks — I personally would prefer that would fall off sooner or later.”
Still, some businesses and professionals find themselves stuck in the gray areas of the executive order, which based on previous orders, will likely be selectively enforced according to jurisdiction. There is also some confusion over exactly who it applies to and the way in which companies interpret subjective language.
“It just shows how, even when you’re trying to be clear, there are still gray areas,” Courtade said. “I got a call from a cabinet maker — he makes cabinets for custom homes — asking whether he is a contractor eligible to go back now or is he a manufacturer required to be shut down. When you figure (it out), let me know.
“You cannot anticipate every possible scenario and cover it in a document that is less than 10,000 pages long. Even at 10,000 pages, other questions will come up. That’s why we have multiple executive orders.”