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Building Trades, Contractors, Allies Working Together to Ensure Best Practices

By Jacob Bourne

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco Building & Construction Trades Council affiliates have been working alongside signatory contractors, subcontractors and the Construction Employers’ Association to establish the best protocols to keep job sites functioning at the highest levels of safety. Because shelter-in-place orders and the associated requirements have varied greatly across Bay Area counties as well as across the state and country, partnerships between the trades and industry leaders have been crucial in establishing best practices to keep essential work going.

“When we were faced with COVID-19, we immediately put together a task force to put together our COVID-19 response plan, and we certainly worked in conjunction with CDC guidelines as well as taking input from our trade partners and other peers to develop this plan,” said Lori Dunn, Operations Manager for Swinerton. “We knew that our sub-contractor trade partners would be looking to us for leadership and guidance as we navigate these challenging times.”

Such safety plans have been challenging to create for a number of reasons. Much is still being learned about the epidemiology of COVID-19, and national, state and local health officials have altered guidelines a number of times over the last few months. Recommendations about when and where to wear face masks and what type of masks should be used have fluctuated.

Furthermore, with 30 different unions in the SFBCTC, all with varying work conditions, protocols can’t be applied to every trade in the same manner. At times the Cement Masons may have up to 30 workers piled into close quarters executing a cement pour, whereas on the other end of the spectrum, the Operating Engineers are naturally socially distanced, each spending hours within compartments of construction vehicles.

The differences in work conditions have also impacted employment outcomes. While there are very few people on OE3’s out-of-work list, most Local 510 members have found themselves without jobs due to the shutting down of trade shows. According to Tim Paulson, SFBCTC Secretary-Treasurer, many Building Trades members who have been working steadily on job sites with high safety performances for the past three years have been stunned by suddenly being told that they can no longer work because of safety issues. Paulson said that health and safety continues to be the number one priority for the Building Trades. “Our members are trained in health safety and trained in the COVID-19 protocols,” he said.

Such protocols are extensive. According to Cassie Hilaski, Director of Environmental Health & Safety for Nibbi Brothers, the key measures being taken begin with temperature scans. Every morning, workers line up six feet apart and get their temperature taken, as an initial low-grade fever can be an early symptom of COVID-19. Workers also fill out a health survey and are asked to stay home when exhibiting any symptoms of illness, even a runny nose.

Job sites also have a designated COVID-19 safety monitor who spends the workday disinfecting commonly touched surfaces such as handrails, ladders, portable restrooms, door handles, access doors, break areas and construction hoists. The monitors are also responsible for maintaining signage around the job site instructing workers with proper hygiene measures, social distancing and replenishing hand sanitizer and other supplies.

Workers are encouraged to use the stairs as much as possible and limit the number of people in the hoist at one time. Additional hand washing stations are being supplied and workers are each issued a cloth face mask for use when they cannot maintain a minimum of six feet of social distancing or in any situation where appropriate. Workers are urged not to carpool and to keep necessary distance during meal breaks.

“We have added extra staff to cover extra roles and implemented lots of preventative measures to take all the necessary steps to ensure the safety and health of our workforce and I think that Nimbi and other general contractors in the Bay Area have done an amazing job to actually step up to the plate and be able to do what needs to be done in order to keep these workers safe,” said Hilaski.

Suffolk Construction also has designated COVID-19 safety officers for every job site in addition to general safety officers. The company has harnessed technology to bolster job site safety by requiring that employees check in via an app to notify managers about whether they’ll be working remotely or onsite. The measure is also being piloted on the job sites themselves where foremen will also use the app to access safety training videos.

“We’re spending quite a bit of time thinking about not just how to get our jobs started again but how we’re going to be working moving forward in the future, because it’s going to change. We’re never going to go back to normal,” said Mike DiNapoli, Northern California General Manager for Suffolk Construction. “The first thing we’re doing is taking all our site-specific safety plans and amend them and include all the COVID-19 procedures we’ve put in place.”

The Construction Employers’ Association (CEA) is a trade association with more than 100 unionized general contractors in Northern California that collectively employs 15,000 employees annually. The organization distributed an Exposure Prevention and Preparedness Response Plan to be used on specific job sites and involves the selection of a point person to execute the plan.

“CEA has also disseminated the Carpenters Training Program online for COVID-19, which has also been adopted by the Laborers in California, the Operating Engineers and the State Building Trades,” said Cindy Sato, Construction Employers’ Association’s Safety Manager.

The program encourages the use of gloves and eye protection in addition to cloth face masks as well as the staggering of meal breaks, having staircases dedicated to either going up or coming down but not both, and the disinfecting of shared tools. CEA also encourages workers to change their clothing before leaving work.

All of these safety measures have had a considerable impact. Paul Aherne, who is part of Counsel Construction Employers’ Association’ General Counsel, said that he can count the number of COVID-19 cases from Northern California jobsites on one hand. “We’ve had infinitesimal amounts of COVID-19 reported on the jobsites compared to the number of hours spent working,” he said.

“Labor is out there helping us make sure that we’re in compliance,” Aherne continued. “It’s really a cooperative effort. It’s an amazing time in terms of the joint singleness of purpose in keeping worker safety paramount.”

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