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What Social Distancing Looks Like On An Active Construction Site

Construction is ongoing at Truebeck's site known as Arete Creative Development at 121 North Beech St., Portland, Ore.

On a normal day on the job site at 121 North Beech St. in Portland, Oregon, subcontractors, trade workers and foremen would crowd into one room for morning briefings, chat in the lines for the food trucks, eat together at packed tables and pass tools around without a second thought.

But these are far from normal days. To limit the transmission of the coronavirusOregon Gov. Kate Brown has ordered the shutdown of almost all businesses across the state, with the exception of those providing essential services. Construction remains active, and job sites throughout the state are staying open, at least for now. The safety of construction employees depends on precautions taken by construction employers, local unions and general contractors at each job site. 

Job sites may not immediately seem like worrisome places for virus transmission, with construction employees spread out across a wide area. But over the course of the day in a construction zone, there are choke points where employees would normally come into close contact with each other. 

When COVID-19 became a threat, Truebeck Construction responded by implementing a communicable disease prevention task force in early March, prior to any shelter-in-place orders on the West Coast.

"Across the board, we've enhanced the great safety practices we already had in place," Truebeck Construction Safety Director Jennifer Wycisk said. "Our constant focus is to make safe best practices routine in the lives of our contractors, partners, owners and employees."

Though Truebeck is headquartered in California, Wycisk has joined the company's recently formed Portland office, where she oversees safety for Truebeck's West Coast operations. For consistency and safety, Wycisk said, Truebeck is implementing the same procedures at its projects in Portland as it has on its active projects in the Bay Area, where the company is renovating two hospitals.

One key to coronavirus safety on a construction site is the same as it is everywhere else: social distancing. Daily all-hands meetings that normally gather dozens of employees into one room have been broken up: Employees arrive for briefings four or five at a time and stand 6 feet apart. When they can, Truebeck employees record safety briefings by video so employees can watch them before coming to work.

Truebeck also has staggered work schedules to lower the total number of employees on the site at any given time and has opened up additional entry gates to the site. Occupancy is limited in break areas, and the food trucks that typically dot Beech Street have been temporarily suspended.

"It's usually a very social, dynamic environment," Wycisk said. "That sort of team mentality is so important to constructing good buildings. We're having to get very creative to effectively communicate with our teams while still keeping a six-foot distance between employees."

Cleaning and sanitation crews would typically come two to three times a week. Now, Wycisk said, they arrive every day. In addition, Truebeck has hired crews to focus solely on shared surfaces like tables, chairs, stair handrails and control panels with buttons that could carry pathogens hours after being touched. Truebeck is pressing workers to be even more vigilant about wearing personal protective equipment, especially gloves, and has boosted the number of wash stations around its sites.

"We usually exceed the amount of sanitation stations that OSHA requires before the virus," Wycisk said. "Now we've doubled that."

With sanitizing chemicals growing scarce, Truebeck took matters into its own hands and began mixing its own cleaning solutions according to instructions sent out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The company has also scoured its reserves for extra safety masks and materials, which it has donated to local first responders, according to Truebeck Chief Operating Officer Nick Pera.

In cities like New York that have banned nonessential construction, health advocates worried that employees would contract the virus on public transportation. Very few construction employees take mass transit in Portland, Pera said, but Truebeck has asked workers not to carpool to the job site.

With social distancing measures in place, most work has been able to continue on Truebeck's Portland projects. But there are some tasks and trades that will have to wait. Glaziers, for instance, rely on two-person and sometimes even four-person squads to lift heavy glass panels into place.

"Some of our buildings are sitting there without glass because we can't risk putting people in close contact," Wycisk said.

In the six Bay Area counties that are under a shelter-in-place order, Truebeck has numerous projects that have had to halt entirely. But while physical construction has slowed, that doesn't mean the company isn't busy. Truebeck had invested in digital infrastructure long before this crisis hit and has been able to keep its employees communicating through digital tools.

"There's a lot of work that can be performed on projects even if the site is shut down, work that can be done behind the scenes," Pera said. "Design and pre-construction, putting more robust processes in place for efficiency and safety. The goal is to get these projects completed as soon as possible once the shelter-in-place [order] is lifted."

Calls are growing for Oregon to curtail construction, as Washington and California both have. While some labor leaders are asking to shutter nonessential construction sites for worker safety, others have been vocal about keeping sites up and running to keep their members employed.

"We've been in constant communication with the unions here in Portland," Wycisk said. "They want to know what we're doing to protect their members, in terms of their physical safety but also their financial health. We have yet another opportunity to partner, optimizing worker safety."

In times of crisis, she said, collaboration between contractors, subcontractors, government agencies and labor organizations is paramount. That teamwork has resulted in the creative methods Truebeck is using to keep work happening safely on its sites.

Pera realizes the call to halt construction across Oregon could come even in the next week. Until then, the Truebeck team will continue one day at a time, practicing CDC recommendations with emphasis on social distancing. 

"Our absolute priority is keeping our team members, owners and trade partners healthy and safe," Pera said.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and Truebeck. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.