If history has shown our industry anything, it’s that the need for critical infrastructure doesn’t disappear with added risk. The continuously developing COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the stability of the economy and many of the industries we serve. But construction projects — and the workers who make them happen — are essential to moving forward and delivering a viable future. Keeping them safe on the job site means taking measures to identify and mitigate risks to deliver successful projects.

From a health and safety standpoint, COVID-19 presents a unique challenge. The situation is always changing, and new information is constantly becoming available. The key to dealing with this emerging situation has been to stay on top of these rapid changes and identify developing risks.

Considering this, it would be easy to simply regard the virus as an uncontrollable variable in the day-to-day life of a construction worker. But instead of laying down and closing shop, this new risk must be viewed from the same perspective as almost any other hazard on a project site. There will always be safety hazards on a job site. Treating COVID-19 the same way we treat other risks doesn’t downplay its impact, but rather utilizes existing methods to help us understand the associated risks and then put control measures in place to manager or control those risks.

Because of the way the virus transmits and works — with many of those afflicted either not presenting symptoms for many days or being entirely asymptomatic — has required various social distancing procedures on job sites. For example, breaking crews into smaller groups and dividing the job site into separate areas allows us to monitor worker health more closely. That way, if one person in a group develops symptoms, it doesn’t shut down the entire project, only that group.

Lunches, break times and meetings are being staggered, which brings together smaller groups than normal and allows for cleaning and sanitation between each. Some larger projects require school buses to transport workers to the site, which means allowing only one worker per bench seat to maintain the 6-foot social distancing requirement. Additionally, buses must be fully sanitized after each trip.

Enhanced sanitation methods have also been implemented across job sites, with cleaning performed two or three times a day in lunch tents, meeting spaces and other high-traffic areas. This means that if a possible case of the disease is detected among workers, exposure is limited to a smaller group of people.

In some cases, eliminating a hazard is impossible. COVID-19 is one of those cases. As such, the last line of defense for the job site is personal protective equipment (PPE). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that people wear face coverings in close proximity of one another, making it important that workers use the proper PPE while interacting with one another.

To keep workers as safe as possible and to continue delivering successful projects during this new reality, these mitigation methods must span all contractual methods and involve all stakeholders. To effectively serve the project, all entities must be working together, providing timely communication of new risks and mitigation tactics to keep everyone safe.


Coronavirus is causing disruptions across multiple industries, requiring new approaches to a variety of projects.How We're Responding

Jamie Butler has nearly 30 years of experience in the construction industry and serves as the vice president and director of corporate safety and health at Burns & McDonnell.