Staying Safe on Construction Sites During the Summer
As summer crawls on—amidst an influx in new construction projects that rival pre-pandemic levels—those in the construction industry are dealing with hazards that get more intense with each rising degree.
If you’ve been outside recently, you’ve probably thought to yourself, “Wow, it’s a scorcher.” Now, imagine dealing with the seasonal heat while in full uniform (hard hat included), operating in tight spaces surrounded by large equipment and tools that give off even more heat for 10 hours at a time. As summer crawls on—amidst an influx in new construction projects that rival pre-pandemic levels—those in the construction industry are dealing with hazards that get more intense with each rising degree.
With over 50 years of construction experience, including his groundbreaking on-site safety initiatives in the 80's that influenced safety protocols today, Dennis Prude knows that high temperatures can cause problems at job sites. As Principal and Director of Field Operations at CNY Group, Prude oversees all ongoing construction projects, monitors the safety program on each project and oversees the firm’s labor relations with New York City building trades unions and trade contractors. OH&S decided to reach out with a few questions for Prude about summer heat, pandemic planning and more.
First off, can you talk about the scale of the projects you work on at CNY?
We work in a very diverse range of industries including hospitality, residential, industrial, interiors and special projects, so there are a handful of factors that can impact how many workers we have on-site. On average, for a large-scale project with more expansive floorplates, we’re looking at about 400 workers cycling through on a monthly basis, but we’ve overseen some sites that can only accommodate 60-70.
In these past few weeks, we’ve experienced a severe heat wave that’s heavily impacting the safety of outdoor work environments in cities across the country. How is CNY working to ensure heat protection?
Our main priority is to protect the workers. They come to work healthy, we ensure they go home healthy. In terms of managing heat on the job site, we aim to start work earlier in the day, before the sun rises, so we can end the day by that midday heat. When we need to do strenuous work, like concrete pours, we start those early in the morning, so the afternoon workers can focus on less demanding tasks. Naturally, we provide hydration, ice and pedestal fans on the job. We also do first-aid training for those on the front lines and our project managers just in case someone needs to step in during an emergency.
What’s the threshold for closing down a job site due to heat?
You must use your judgement. There’s no written threshold. We once had a project where it was 105 degrees outside and it felt like 110, so we shut down the site and made up the time working on the weekend when the weather was better. You have to do the practical things, and you have to be a good human being. You know what’s right.
We’re only just now coming out on the other side of a major challenge that no one could have fully prepared for, unlike the heat during summer months.
How did you ensure worker health and safety during the pandemic?
We, of course, followed all the baseline best practices, including social distancing, mask-wearing and enhanced sanitation practices, but we also went the extra mile to form a COVID Task Force. That Task Force bore an offshoot called the Project Restart Team, which ensured each individual project site was reopened at the highest standard of safety and care. Since we implemented these practices early on, we’re very much prepared to head into the “new normal” with crucial measures already in place.
What were some of the specific precautions you took during the peak of the pandemic, and how have those changed now that vaccination rates are increasing and cases are decreasing?
In the early days, the Task Force met twice a day, five days a week to ensure we had appropriate guidelines for returning to the job site. The team was adaptable, ready to address any challenges as they may arise on job sites or within our office. We know that the most important protocol we could follow was ongoing communication with the workers, so we implemented CNY site orientation seminars to reinforce and re-communicate the policies, procedures and risks. Once that orientation was completed, workers would be given a hard hat COVID sticker “badge” that was required to be visible and present throughout every work day. We also required daily entrance screenings to limit entry of anyone presenting COVID symptoms and/or anyone who had been in contact with a positive individual.
What were the results of these precautions? How could you be sure your workers felt safe returning to the workplace after lockdown?
On one of CNY’s large, mixed-use residential developments in New York City, company leadership expected only 12 percent of the original construction team to return, given the drop-off rate seen on other job sites. However, within the first week, CNY had an impressive 50 percent of the workers report to the site. This illustrated how CNY's early mobilization and communicated level of stringency was enough to make people feel comfortable with coming back.
What’s the biggest challenge, generally, in protecting workers on a job site?
Protecting them from themselves. We have instances, pandemic and heat wave or otherwise, where someone will come to work not feeling one hundred percent.Construction is a very physically intensive job. When workers don’t feel their best, they can’t work at their best. Our supervisors are trained to recognize when someone comes to work who maybe shouldn’t have. It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly in this industry, but it’s crucial.
What do you believe is most important in protecting your workers?
Extending an open line of communication. Every morning we go through tasks and preventative measures, ensure everyone is wearing the right PPE and we check in with the workers throughout the day. Everyone has site safety training, but our supervisors are accountable for checking in with them, making sure everyone is taking care of themselves and ensuring they will go home healthy. When people feel comfortable with their leadership, they’re more likely to speak up, and we try to cultivate that environment.