It is hard to believe it’s only been two months since the surge of COVID-19 across the country. Not only did it take American citizens by surprise, it has also increased anxiety about the economy. Let’s explore how the construction industry is being affected. When Ohio Governor DeWine issued the stay-at-home order on March 22, there was confusion and questions about what that meant for the construction industry. The order defined construction as a critical trade and business could continue but this did not mean business as usual.
Essential businesses like construction were instructed to implement health and safety measures to keep both employees and clients safe. What did this mean? Laborers are asked to cover coughs, avoid touching their face, practice 6-foot distancing, frequently clean shared tools before and after use and offer on-site handwash or hand sanitizing stations. For instances where social distancing is difficult, like interior renovations, workers are asked to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face coverings. However, companies are worried about keeping enough PPE on-site though many workers are using bandanas, dust mask or homemade cloth masks from home.
Construction companies are regularly sharing updates with their office workers and field staff to prevent miscommunication and help relieve anxiety. In addition to physical wellness, contractors are considering mental health too. In an informal survey (1), when asked their top issues around COVID-19, 70% of respondents said “employee anxiety” as their main concern. Many construction companies are taking health and safety measures a step further with on-site temperature checks and are asking subs and vendors to do the same (2).
Even with proactive measures, some owners and contractors are struggling with staffing as workers call off because they may not have childcare or are just nervous about catching the virus. In some areas, public transportation has been shut down making it more difficult for workers to get to work. A lack of specialty contractors like plumbers and electricians could cause additional disruption because they are not easily replaceable with many states, including Ohio, having rigid licensing laws.
Even before the CORONA-19 virus arrived in the U.S., it was already creating major global supply chain disruptions. The Chinese government had implemented quarantines and shut down factories in many of their cities and provinces. By conservative estimates, nearly 30% of all U.S. building products and raw materials are
imported from China, where many manufacturers have facilities. These goods include steel, stone, millwork, lighting and plumbing fixtures to name a few. For these commercial builders, this could mean higher material costs and slower project completions (3).
Many contractors that are bidding out jobs are calling for multiple backup sources for materials.
With continued sourcing issues expected, many American construction firms are hesitant to resume ordering from Chinese suppliers thus putting a spotlight on the weakness of international sourcing. This has led American builders to identify shortages and develop creative solutions for projects. Some are pre-purchasing materials instead of waiting to buy the material when it is needed. Others are willing to pay higher prices for supplies coming from less risky locales. Regardless, receiving materials from China and other parts of the world will likely continue to be an issue for the remainder of 2020 and possibly beyond.
What will construction look like going forward? That is anyone’s guess. However, it probably won’t be the same as it was before the COVID-19 outbreak. Employers may need to be creative and flexible as new ways of working emerge.
The virus put a spotlight on the importance of workers health and safety measures. New jobsite policies such as staggered shifts, employee temperature checks and jobsite tool disinfections will stay so that employees are comfortable and confident that their employer is looking out for their well-being.
OSHA could also require construction companies to develop a written infectious disease preparedness and response plan since it is believed the virus outbreaks will continue (3). Local health officials are asking for more clearly defined procedures and protocols for even the most mundane tasks. This may emphasize continued social distancing on jobsites and less group activities. Any non-compliance could lead to a project shutdown.
Job planning will look different. Many of the safety changes on construction sites could add to the project completion time. Contractors should consider time constraints when bidding out new projects so that a reasonable construction schedule is reflected. The need for social distancing has also changed how contractors and clients interact. Videoconferencing, emailing and texting are being used more than ever. Programs like Microsoft Teams and Webex are used to keep projects on track but without having to be on-site. These changes are just some of the more efficient ways to work now. Receiving building materials in a timely manner is one of the largest issues in construction. Without materials, projects can’t start or finish on time leading to another bucket of issues for the industry. Expect less reliance on Chinese-made goods and
more manufacturing facilities to reshore to the U.S. to safeguard supply. This will create a surge of manufacturing- and supply chain-related construction projects like warehouses.
Construction is an industry that has been forever changed by both public health and financial effects of the pandemic. The industry’s status as essential puts a burden on employers and workers to decide what is safe and reasonable, when the stakes seem so high. But we are America – we have been knocked down many times before and we always get up and innovate to meet the challenges of the day. We come out stronger and the construction industry is no exception.
1 The New Normal: 8 ways the coronavirus crisis is changing construction. March, 2020. Retrieved from www.constructiondive.com
2 6 Ways the Coronavirus Will Affect Construction. March, 2020. Retrieved from www.constructiondive.com
3 Project Impacts Growing as Coronavirus Spreads. February 28, 2020. Retrieved from www.enr.com