Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A construction reset: Six feet of separation

By Cara Mitchell

In support of Governor Inslee's Stay Home, Stay Healthy order issued March 25, we suspended most of our construction and field maintenance work.

During the suspension, we joined with other agencies and industry partners in a Governor's Roundtable to develop a 30-point COVID-19 safety plan (pdf 138 kb) to resume low-risk work.  Now, with safety plans in place, some work is starting back up and our work zones look a lot different than they did before COVID-19.
Safety banners are on display at every job site to remind workers the importance of standing six feet apart.

All activities require everyone to maintain a distance of six feet from one another. Each worksite has more personal protection equipment like masks, gloves and eye protection. There's additional sanitation on site, and new systems in place for health screening. Each construction project coordinator must produce a safety plan on how they'll comply with all the new requirements and have it approved before work can begin again. A monitor must also be on site each day to ensure the safety standards are being met.
New wash stations like this on the I-5 project in Lakewood provide crews with easy access for more frequent hand washing.

These new safety plans require all of us to re-think how we all do our jobs. Every task, such as cutting lumber for building bridge forms, or installing signs, is broken down step-by-step to keep six feet of separation between workers.

Sometimes, the work can easily be completed. Crews can socially distance for activities like driving piles, bridge formwork, grading, and some electrical work.

Other times, the work is more challenging. For instance, asphalt or concrete paving may get delayed until new guidelines for higher risk construction activities become available.

Our maintenance crews are also donning additional safety gear and adhering to six-foot physical distancing rules as they respond to both planned maintenance and emergency issues such as potholes opening up on bridge decks along Interstate 5. In some rare cases an emergency repair requires workers to be closer than six feet and can't be delayed due to the public safety risk. In those instances, our crews use additional special equipment, such as a Powered Air Purifying Respirator, which provides filtered air and offers additional protection for workers.
Entrance and exit signs plus directional arrows show workers the flow of pedestrian traffic at our I-5 project in Tacoma.

Worksite by worksite

Every job site is going to look different as low-risk work activity resumes. Some job sites are able to find multiple low-risk activities that can be safely completed. Other job sites may only have higher risk construction needs that can't be safely performed right now.

Bottom line – the health and safety of our crews is our top priority. We are all working very hard to roll out this new phase of low-risk construction and maintenance work correctly. If we find something isn't going to work, we pause and rethink the task.
Left: Emergency work on the I-5 bridge over the North Fort Lewis River. Right: Crews doing earth work in eastern Washington wearing new protective safety gear.

Patience goes a long way for all of us

Humans are creatures of habit. It is easy for all of us to slip into old habits. This is why work is starting slowly, applying the new safety measures one activity at a time. Once crews have mastered one work activity, they will add another in.

Transitioning to this new normal of physical distancing takes time and patience. We continue to work with our partners in the labor and construction industries and the Governor's Office to develop guidelines for the next phase of construction. Medium-risk construction would include activities that require workers to be closer than six feet for short durations and thus require additional protections and safeguards.

Drivers play a role in keeping crews safe

While there are fewer cars on the road right now due to Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders, we still see vehicles traveling too fast near work zones. We need drivers to stay alert as low-risk construction and maintenance activity picks up. Remember, most work zone collisions are preventable.

When you are out for essential travel, obey the speed limits, avoid distracted driving and don't follow too closely. We want our coworkers – as well as everyone on the roads – to go home safely to their families at the end of each shift. By working together, we can all make that happen.