10 Essential Ways Contractors & Subs Must Respond to Coronavirus


[ Article was originally posted on www.constructconnect.com ]

By: Peter Grant,

The world is fixated on the coronavirus outbreak — but is it really that bad? 

There is a life-threatening element to this new virus. It causes the disease COVID-19 and can affect important organ systems in both healthy and vulnerable patients. The many unknowns around the illness are leading to a stock market slump and less demand for new work.

Meanwhile, credible sources say the threat is being blown out of proportion. Many people repost this information and assert we all should just go about business as usual. 

Thankfully, there is a third way to respond: prepare.

While you shouldn’t let the coronavirus panic influence your decisions, it’s important to prepare according to guidelines recommended by reputable sources.

As an employer, you play a pivotal role in any outbreak. You are uniquely situated to communicate the facts and protect employees from exposure at work. 

I boiled down the advice of organizations like the WHO and the CDC to ten essential response tactics for contractors and subcontractors.

  1. Follow reputable sources and regulatory bodies (and encourage your employees to do the same) 
  2. Communicate with your employees frequently
  3. Listen to your employees’ fears and feedback
  4. Create an infection control plan (and fund it)
  5. Train your employees on your infection control measures
  6. Make a contingency plan to continue services
  7. Equip your employees to carry out your contingency plan
  8. Communicate with clients and customers frequently
  9. Protect medically vulnerable and temporary employees
  10. Continually improve

Follow Reputable Sources and Regulatory Bodies

The online conversation about coronavirus is buzzing. To ensure your organization doesn’t receive, or worse, act on misinformation, follow these reliable sources:

The World Health Organization (WHO) updates its coronavirus page daily. It also publishes formal situation reports each day. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is another important source of information, with a website section dedicated to coronavirus updates and resources for employers and the general public. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has a safety and health section dedicated to coronavirus as well, with sections dedicated to risk assessment, applicable standards, and control and prevention tips.

If you’re covered by a state OSHA, be sure to check that website for information as well. 

Industry associations, such as the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), the Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA), the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), and many more, are also valuable resources.  

If your company does business internationally, you will also need to be aware of the quarantines, travel guidelines, border closures, airport closures, and transportation guidelines everywhere you work.

Encourage your employees to follow reputable sources as well, and include your source of information in your company communication on coronavirus. 

Communicate With Your Employees

Avoid assigning one employee to crank out some email updates. Use this time to form a communication plan and to schedule frequent updates.

Form your communication plan with input from your employees. Include your Human Resources Department, various levels of leadership, and field employees in the formation of your plans.

Communication is a valuable part of every step listed in this article. From your preparedness plan to policies to timely updates (particularly where rumors are involved), a well-written email makes a big difference. 

For greater impact, company leadership may choose to devote face time — even if it’s prerecorded video — to your staff during an outbreak. 

Listen to Your Employees

One symptom of a broken safety culture is that employees feel uncomfortable or discouraged from communicating that they feel unsafe. Your employees should feel comfortable owning symptoms of illness in themselves (and others) and taking preventive measures like removing themselves from the job. 

On the flip side, a healthy safety culture encourages employees to be open about their safety concerns and/or the need to remain home if the situation aligns with the suggested precautions.

Train Your Employees

According to the CDC, frequent handwashing is the best way to prevent infection. You’re on the hook for providing clean handwashing facilities, disinfecting shared supplies and equipment, and training your employees on your policies — in the language they best understand. 

Hold regular toolbox talks and safety meetings to remind employees how to prevent getting a respiratory illness at work. Because a toolbox talk about handwashing could potentially feel condescending, use humor to increase engagement. 

illness prevention funnyA little humor goes a long way on this slide from a coronavirus safety meeting PPT

Edit an illness prevention safety meeting template to fit your situation and use it to remind your team what you’re doing to protect them — and how they must protect themselves. 

In addition to training all employees in coronavirus prevention, train select employees to carry out good housekeeping and disinfect commonly shared surfaces and items, such as:

  • Doorknobs and handles
  • Light switches
  • Telephones
  • Shared tablets and smartphones
  • Water coolers
  • Port-a-potties
  • Restroom facilities door/faucet handles
  • Shared equipment and tools

Create an Infection Control Plan

First, use a checklist to evaluate your overall preparedness for an outbreak/epidemic and the appropriateness of your plans. 

You may need to update an existing infection control plan (or section of your emergency preparedness plan) to include more specific procedures based on the vulnerable people and characteristics involved in this outbreak. 

Infection Planning Graphic

While infection control plans are typically more detailed for healthcare organizations, developing a plan for your company will help you determine: 

  • Names and responsibilities of key personnel involved in carrying out your plan
  • Assessment of the level of risk to various departments and individuals, including temporary or janitorial employees or agencies.
  • Precautionary measures you’ll take to prevent the spread of coronavirus
  • Policies regarding employees with ill family members (both diagnosed and not diagnosed)
  • How you’ll encourage and enforce employees to stay at home if exhibiting symptoms
  • How you’ll monitor and follow up with employees who are sick at home
  • Requirements for returning to work after an illness (both diagnosed and not diagnosed)
  • Policies for addressing employee international travel (for work or vacation)
  • Control measures you’ll take if an employee is diagnosed after being in contact with other employees, including stay-at-home policy and communication
  • Control and communication measures you’ll take if an employee is diagnosed after being in contact with a client or customer
  • And others, listed in the complete infection control plan checklist

You may need to consult a lawyer regarding your infection communications guidelines, particularly where a COVID-19 positive employee has been in close contact with multiple coworkers and clients. 

Once your plan is in place, gather the funds you’ll need to execute it.

Make a Contingency Plan

In addition to protecting the health and safety of your employees and clients, you’ll need a plan to continue business operations and services. Your contingency plan should be heavily informed by your infection control plan, particularly your requirements for returning to work.

If your contingency plan involves hiring temporary workers, ensure they are properly trained in all of your company’s safety guidelines, including infection prevention, and include them in your infection control plan. 

Your plan will have a higher likelihood of succeeding if you think through a few levels of “what-ifs” surrounding employee illnesses and vendor/supplier slowdowns. Ensure that any employees who are in line to assume leadership or project management responsibilities will be equipped to carry them out. 

You may need to produce additional keys, software logins, or other tools. If you do, be sure to secure them and have a plan for returning them after their original owner returns to work. 

Finally, if you have multiple locations, create a plan for each. A contingency planning checklist can help ensure you cover your bases. 

Communicate With Clients and Customers

You may need to communicate business delays or even exposure to an employee who has since been diagnosed with the virus. Work with legal and HR professionals to craft templates for these messages in advance and attach them to your infection control plan (see above). 

If coronavirus has reached your state or a nearby region, it’s a good idea to kick off an exchange with an email that says you’re currently not experiencing any employee illnesses and what you’re doing to monitor and prevent coronavirus. 

Be sure to communicate in a timely manner. While you do want to avoid firing off an email or phone call too soon and raising false alarms, it would be even worse to avoid it too long for the other party to make reasonable accommodations. 

Continually Improve

You probably saw this coming: the final way to prepare for the coronavirus isn’t just one step. It’s a practice. You must monitor, evaluate, and continually improve your system. 

Coronavirus is today’s outbreak, but even after this one is controlled, there is likely to be another at some point. A future outbreak could look very different. Plan for change and to build in ways to improve, such as periodic check-ins or a safety scoring system.

In Summary

Contractors and subcontractors need to respond to coronavirus by shoring up their general respiratory illness response and contingency plans. As with any safety risk, open communication and employee training are excellent ways to prepare. 

Employers should give responsible employees the authority to manage projects and to communicate with coworkers and clients as a contingency. Finally, don’t panic. Do prepare. And always improve. 

Here’s a recap of the of free resources in this article:

Peter Grant is co-founder and CEO of Safesite, a safety management software and reporting dashboard. His experience working as a civil engineer in project management for large commercial contractors motivated him to use mobile technology to reduce preventable incidents and deaths. That goal has driven Peter's strategic decisions for Safesite, which has grown from a mobile app to a robust safety management system.

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