Safety First – Construction Companies Adapt to COVID-19

CT construction firms adopt innovative protective measures as COVID-19 slows, but doesn’t stall sector

By Sean Teehan – Hartford Business Journal

Originally Published May 4, 2020. Photo Credit: HBJ PHOTO | SEAN TEEHAN

When Trevor Howlett visits a construction site nowadays, there are no handshakes, while masked workers do their jobs at least six feet apart.

Construction firms are also reducing by half the number of crew members on-site to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“It’s been a change alright,” said Howlett, a project lead at Hartford construction company Infinity Group, which focuses on workplace remodels. “This is just the new reality we’ve got to cope with.”

While Connecticut construction companies are being forced to do business in new ways amid the coronavirus pandemic, the industry itself hasn’t suffered an immediate downturn in business, said Don Shubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association.

In fact, according to the Associated General Contractors of America, Connecticut actually added 700 construction jobs between February and March, a 1% increase in employment — fourth highest in the U.S.

“Companies working on large civil engineering projects like bridges and roads have been unaffected — or are increasing work since so few people are driving on roads — and firms working for private clients have seen delays, but not many project cancellations”, Shubert said.

But the question of whether business will slow down longer term as clients forego new projects amid economic uncertainty looms heavy in the industry.

“As a whole, I think the industry is doing as well as can be expected,” Shubert said. “But it’s very hard to predict anything from day to day right now.”

A number of Infinity Group’s customers have put their office redesign projects on hold, said Verne Markham, the company’s CEO. But those companies are in the minority, as Infinity continues work on about 40 projects across the country, including 12 in Greater Hartford.

COVID-19 may force some workplaces to rethink their office layout, which could lead to more work for Infinity.

“The psychology piece of it, when employees are going to be going back into the office, it’s going to be a tough sell to get employees in an area that’s congested,” Markham said. “We want to continue to be a strong point of solution to all our clients.”

Tom Panczner, president and CEO of Bloomfield construction firm Bartlett Brainard Eacott Inc. (BBE), said about 90% of its work has gone uninterrupted, and the company is now involved in 14 projects. BBE has built large-scale projects like UConn’s Gampel Pavilion and American School for the Deaf’s Gallaudet-Clerc Education Center in West Hartford. And even though projects are mostly continuing on schedule for now, Panczner said he sees a possible canary in the coal mine in the form of architects and engineers without current projects to work on.

“I’m definitely concerned with the fourth quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2021,” said Panczner, who noted BBE is capitalized enough to ride out a downturn. “Some of our clients said, ‘We’re putting a hold on all future construction projects for the time being.’ “

Contact tracing

While Connecticut’s construction industry faces economic uncertainty, firms are implementing cutting-edge safety measures to keep workers safe and healthy, Shubert said. More than most industries, safety is ingrained into the construction sector’s DNA, he said.

“Our safety efforts stepped up right away,” Shubert said of social distancing, worksite cleaning and health screenings companies enacted as COVID-19 led to worldwide quarantine measures. “It’s a natural extension of what our first priority is, anyway.”

Construction companies requiring workers to wear N95 respirator masks is nothing new, said John Butts, the Connecticut Construction Industries Association’s assistant executive director.

But acquiring those masks and additional personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers has become more of a challenge amid such high demand.

“What they’re seeing is prices going through the roof,” Butts said. “Construction companies are doing whatever they need to do to get PPE.”

While companies like Infinity and BBE are staggering shifts and checking workers’ temperatures each day, the virus has inspired other construction site innovations.

Norwalk-based startup Triax Technologies, which specializes in cloud-connected wearables for the construction industry, developed Proximity Trace. The product is a device that’s clipped onto construction workers’ hard hats, and alerts workers if they’re closer than six feet to one another, said Triax Chief Technology Officer Justin Morgenthau.

“It actually has a conditioning effect,” Morgenthau said. “You wear this for a couple of hours and you’re much more aware of your proximity to other individuals.” Proximity Trace also has a contact tracing element that could be useful in fighting COVID-19’s spread, Morgenthau said. The device not only signals that workers came in close proximity, but also records the interaction.

If a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19, the employer can track who that person came in close contact with to determine who else may be at risk.

Triax is currently testing Proximity Trace as part of a pilot program on three worksites in Groton, Boston and New York, Morgenthau said, adding that companies within and outside the construction industry have expressed interest in the product.

“We’ve seen significant interest not only from construction, but from manufacturing, food distribution, energy and industrial organizations,” Morgenthau said.

Meantime, Connecticut’s construction sector might see a silver lining in the pandemic, if recent employment trends continue.

The state industry’s addition of 700 jobs in March could reflect more Boston area construction workers seeking jobs in Connecticut, Shubert said. Last year, Connecticut lost 3,400 commercial construction jobs, many of those to Massachusetts, Shubert said.

“We noticed that some of the Connecticut people that were traveling to Massachusetts for work were suddenly available in Connecticut,” Shubert said. “We see that as giving us an opportunity to maybe get some of our Connecticut employees back.”