A new beginning: 5 ways construction is reopening and preparing for a safer future

As construction sites are reopening, firms are exploring ways to give workers a safe start while imagining what the industry's "new normal" might look like.

The sun sets behind a construction crane.

Mark de Wolf

June 18, 2020

min read
  • Global construction sites are reopening post-COVID, emphasizing worker safety.

  • Safety strategies include increased communication, new shift patterns, wearable tech, site layout optimization, and off-site collaboration.

  • These measures aim to ensure safety, productivity, and quality while fostering a more advanced and sustainable construction industry.

Construction workers consult a virtual plan.
As lockdowns lift, companies have had to reset their site-safety strategies.

Construction sites are some of the most visible signs of a country’s commercial vigor. Hard hats, swinging cranes, and the rumble of heavy machinery signify enterprise and economic growth in a visceral way that bar charts simply can’t match.

That’s a key reason why, in many countries, construction is a priority sector in the release from COVID-19 lockdown. An extensive ecosystem of investors, contractors, suppliers, and workers all have a stake in seeing multimillion-dollar projects restart their engines. But in uncertain times, the screeching drills and swirling dust from a new build can also be powerful symbols of renewal.

Governments around the globe are giving the green light to start reopening construction projects. Many workers are returning to thousands of dormant sites; others are expanding teams that were deemed essential and remained open with skeleton crews.

Amid the buzz of relief, however, is worry about reopening construction sites safely. In the UK, the government published official guidance to address safety concerns felt throughout the nation’s construction industry. The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) is also actively coordinating with the UK government on a three-phase plan to Restart, Reset, and Reinvent.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a recent study commissioned by the mayor of Austin, Texas, projects that coronavirus hospitalizations in the local population will triple if the city starts reopening construction jobsites without added safety measures.

As lockdowns lift, one thing is certain: In an intense period of heightened risk, business as usual isn’t an option. To help companies reset their site-safety strategies, industry experts offer five key ways construction companies can start their projects anew.

1. Overcommunicate and increase oversight

Construction workers wear masks for protection as COVID-19 lockdown lifts.
Masks can provide construction workers more protection as lockdowns lift.

In the chaos of a busy day, it can be hard to maintain compliance with construction health and safety measures–old and new. That’s why many reopened sites are using their regular “toolbox talks” to emphasize the new risks and realities of work under the COVID-19 threat.

Duncan Yarroll, head of BIM and digital engineering at UK-based consultancy and construction company Mace, says each workday begins with a reminder to teams about safety measures. “Our objective is a daily safe start,” he says. “Project supervisors physically chair a town-hall meeting where they explain to everyone what the planned activities are for that day. They also make sure teams have the right tools and confirm that everyone has been trained correctly. We’ve now made a COVID-19 checklist part of the agenda to ensure we’re reinforcing the additional safety measures required.”

Companies are also increasing on-site signage, as well as expanding health and safety resources to make sure staff are keeping to the rules across the full duration of each shift.

2. Create new shift patterns

Workers meet with a remote construction executive in a virtual meeeting.
Inspection tasks can be completed remotely using video and software automation.

“Construction teams are now working in a new environment,” says Mike Pettinella, director of EMEA Autodesk Construction Solutions. “In the areas where project sites have reopened, firms are implementing new routines to keep employees safe, such as alternate work schedules and staggered arrivals and departures, while still maintaining productivity and the same high-quality standards.”

Instead of 8- to 10-hour shifts, companies may also need to consider 12-hour shifts in which a tradesperson can start and complete as many tasks as possible in a single visit. Of course, any such move could run afoul of local regulations. Companies will need to work with local authorities to modify current restrictions on noise limits and suitable hours of operation.

Luckily, authorities are helping: The UK government, for example, published a statement that ensures national construction sites will be allowed extended hours of operation. This means varied start and finish times and even 24-hour working applications will be prioritized, then approved by local authorities whenever feasible.

3. Consider incorporating wearable technologies

A construction worker wears an augmented-reality headset.
Wearable technologies, including augmented-reality headsets, can help maintain social distancing on construction sites.

Engineers and other team members who oversee inspections across multiple projects need to be protected, and many have expressed concern about returning to sites before the pandemic has run its course.

Yarroll says technology can help address those worries by automating processes. “A combination of video and wearable technology, plus some very clever software that can recognize certain activities, allows us to complete inspection tasks remotely,” he says. “With video records, we can review certain areas of the works underway, go through checklists, and hand over information digitally without sending more people to the site and putting them at risk.”

4. optimize site layouts

Rethinking controls around access and egress, changing traffic flows, and restricting the number of meeting locations can be effective ways to maintain social distancing while reopening construction sites.

Amit Puri, construction solutions specialist at Autodesk, says many companies are implementing one-way systems and adding gate attendants to capture when workers arrive and depart–stopping queues from forming and letting people move quickly through turnstiles.

“It’s important to reduce the number of gathering places at each site, as well,” he says. “Instinctively, you might think more stations for water and hand sanitizer would be needed. But in most cases, it makes more sense to hand out bottled water and help people maintain appropriate distance.”

5. Maximize offsite collaboration

A rendering of the base of the Eiffel Tower
BIM model of connected infrastructures around the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Image courtesy of the Colas Group.

Reopening construction sites with an increased use of collaboration tools for drawings, documentation, modeling, and data sharing can help maintain social distancing by reducing the need for in-person meetings and further minimizing the number of people onsite.

The same can be said for health and safety reporting. By capturing incidents digitally rather than on a clipboard, data quality improves. At the same time, manual processes and the need to physically share paper on-site is dramatically reduced.

According to Bernard Sala, deputy managing director of innovation, research, and development at French infrastructure group Colas, the move toward virtual collaboration is only going to accelerate. In fact, it could even be a catalyst to launch projects digitally from the start.

“Perhaps this is the time to prepare for the future in a more thoughtful way,” Sala says. “As we lean more heavily on technology while reopening our construction sites, we will learn a lot about building remotely. Digitalizing this process will enable us to resolve more problems from the early stages and therefore become more efficient when we implement them on the work sites. It will also have a hugely positive impact on the environmental and financial aspects of our future work. A BIM project should cost less than a conventional project; that much is obvious.”

Sala says safeguarding against future travel challenges is another benefit: “If we aren’t flying to Mumbai or Madagascar to be with our colleagues, technology can help us retain strong links. We can continue to build good relationships remotely.”

A construction worker operates a drone.
Embracing technologies could be a catalyst for a renewal in the construction industry.

Reopening safely in the wake of a global pandemic is a singular challenge. Still, it could turn out to be the catalyst for a different kind of renewal in the construction industry, one that some argue has been overdue.

“We’ve got a generation gap where young people don’t want to work in construction because it’s perceived to be an unsafe environment and not very technically advanced,” Yarroll says. “Embracing technologies that allow us to, for example, rehearse a build virtually before work starts might help attract new talent. It would also optimize the number of people needed on a jobsite, making social distancing easier to achieve. As worrying as it is today, we might someday see COVID-19 as the disruptor the industry needed to make us think differently about how we build.”

Sala believes the construction industry can rise from this crisis better and stronger. “Beyond a health crisis, we are also experiencing a real-time disruption in how we operate,” he says. “Aiming to emerge from this situation in the traditional ways would be a mistake. We now have new dimensions such as sustainability and digitalization which must become part of the solution.”

Mark de Wolf

About Mark de Wolf

Mark de Wolf is a freelance journalist and award-winning copywriter specializing in technology stories. Born in Toronto. Made in London. Based in Zürich. Reach him at markdewolf.com.

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