Thursday, August 20, 2020

Keeping construction going – and crews safe – during a pandemic

By Beth Bousley

Summer is usually one of our busiest seasons – between maintenance and construction projects, it's typically full speed ahead. Crews are working on road repair, paving, chip seal, and other improvement projects – helping to keep people and goods moving throughout Washington state.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, though, all of that came to a screeching halt. As part of the statewide Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders, most of our construction and maintenance projects were put on hold until we could ensure the safety of our employees and travelers under new safety guidelines.

What do you do when faced with a shutdown caused by something as unprecedented as a pandemic? You get busy. Over the next month, our representatives worked with the Governor's Office, state departments of Health and Labor and Industries and our partners in labor, trades and contractors to help develop the safety guidelines that would be needed for the phased Safe Start return-to-work. We – including our contractor partners – also worked hard to ensure every crew and project would meet the new guidelines. No jobsite was allowed to operate until a contractor could meet and maintain all requirements. Contractors prepared detailed site-specific safety plans and worked hard to gather the required materials, equipment and update schedules. Contractors and our own construction and maintenance crew members also needed to complete mandatory COVID-19 training and show how they would comply with the 30 new safety protocols.

Everyone took these safety rules seriously and were ready to go a month later when Phase 1 construction was allowed to restart on projects that could be done while keeping workers 6 feet apart and later in Phase 2 construction when close proximity work could occur with the proper personal protective equipment (PPE for short). As a result, today, we have 142 active construction projects across the state and all are in full swing.
Working on the BNSF railroad realignment on the North Spokane Corridor.

A different look

If you drive past any of our jobsites today, things look different. Workers are leaving more space between themselves and others, and those who cannot physically distance while completing their tasks are wearing more PPE including eye protection, masks and gloves. Sites are also more sanitary with hand and tool wash stations and cleaning and disinfecting are a priority.
I-5 Southbound HOV construction workers in Tacoma had visual reminders about
how to stay 6 feet apart.

We're very pleased to see that strict adherence to safety guidelines by our staff and our contractor crews appear to be highly effective. The current rate of COVID-positive tests on our construction projects is approximately one-fifth, or 20%, of the statewide rate with seven confirmed COVID cases out of 5,000 people as of July 27. That's a testament to the dedication of our contractors and their crews as well as our own staff supervising and assisting with compliance.

Together with our contractors, we have taken steps to help us identify and isolate any workers testing positive for COVID-19 to keep the virus from spreading. We ensure a contractor-designated supervisor is at every job site to monitor the health of employees and enforce the COVID-19 job safety plan. Employees are trained on proper use of PPE and safety guidelines, and there is consistent reinforcement of expectations, temperature screening, mask use and handwashing.
Getting ready for on-site temperature screening.

Today, these new procedures have become part of our everyday work habits. Everyone wants to keep working now that we're back on the job, so we are glad that our field inspectors at construction sites and maintenance supervisors closely monitor work activities. They have the authority to shut down a job site or maintenance work if the safety protocols are not followed.
A washing station and posted guidelines have been added to portable toilets at construction
sites, including this one on the I-5 Berkeley Street overpass construction site.

Safety first, always

In Spokane, for example, we're in the midst of a complicated, time-sensitive project to replace the century-old Spokane River East Trent Bridge. The project requires work in and out of the water and has strict "in water work windows" to safeguard fish and habitat. Delay on any one part of the project has a cascading effect on all the others and jeopardizes the completion timeline. But, when a subcontractor crew showed up without masks a few weeks ago, safety took precedent over deadlines. Work was temporarily stopped until proper PPE was secured and only then once everyone had masks did work continue. It was critical that everyone work together to make sure guidelines were followed for work to continue. The relationships we have with the contractors we work with are important and all of us value the safety of our employees on the job.
Maintenance crew wearing full PPE on Trent Avenue Bridge in Spokane

Sometimes, however, we must postpone the work to ensure the safety of our employees. In eastern Washington, where the summers are glorious, but hot, maintenance crews working with hot asphalt and machinery are at risk of overheating. When they wear the bulkier forms of PPE – such as huge air filtration systems, and fully enclosed face coverings – that heat can seem even hotter. As a result, some maintenance projects are being delayed until cooler weather arrives in late summer or fall.
Complying with physical distancing and PPE guidelines on the North Spokane
Corridor BNSF railroad realignment project.

We will continue to overcome challenges and learn lessons along the way, but one message is clear: work on our projects means following all safety guidelines. We take it seriously because our ability to demonstrate safety compliance is critical to ensuring this vital construction and maintenance work can continue. The work can't get done if all of our people aren't safe and healthy, and at the end of the day, we all "wear orange". By keeping workers safe, not only does the work keep going, but people stay employed and we help keep families and friends safe as we all navigate this public health crisis together.
US 12 crack sealing near Naches. Crews stay safe with a variety of PPE during the hot work.

Like you, we long for the day when we'll be able to get back to normal – to go to the store without a mask, to go on a walk without avoiding the people we meet (even eye contact – what's that about?), and to sit inside at a table with friends and family. We hope that day comes soon. In the meantime, we are glad to be back at work, and will do whatever we can to keep our staff and contractors going strong while continuing to serve the traveling public – safely.
Repairing the bridge deck of the I-5 North Fork Lewis River Bridge
with masks and distance between other workers.

3 comments:

KayVERG said...

WSDOT Maintenance Teams ROCK!

KayVERG said...

WSDOT Construction Engineering Teams ROCK!

Unknown said...

Yes they do rock! Our construction engineering and maintenance workers are so committed and dedicated, working hard to get the job done even during this crazy time. It's so important to keep our transportation system in good shape so that we can continue to support the movement of people, goods, and ultimately the economy.

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