For Barry Schlouch, Co-founder and President of the Pennsylvania-based site design and construction company Schlouch Incorporated, the announcement came with stunning swiftness and no time to prepare.
“Our governor announced at 5 p.m. one evening that construction in its entirety had to completely shut down by 8 p.m. that same evening,” recalls Schlouch. “Everything, even heavy road construction. We were completely caught off guard.”
Absent an established standard operating procedure for ‘global pandemic,’ Schlouch instinctively turned to his business’s single highest priority: safety.
“You can’t just instantly shut down a major construction project with open pits and trenches and unsecured equipment,” Schlouch says. “We had to go back to work and button up our job sites.”
Over the next few weeks, as Pennsylvania began considering and approving waivers for certain projects, Schlouch was able to get about a third of his job sites running again. Critical projects such as hospitals, roads and other civil engineering were deemed life-sustaining for returning to work.
Getting back on the job site still required a completely new process to operate under the restrictions being imposed. For Schlouch, it was again instinctual to proceed with safety as the highest priority.
“When we were getting back to work, we were focused solely on one thing, how to return safely,” Schlouch shares.
This is where his training and a single mindedness for safety gave him an operational advantage.
“In our business, we always operate with a constant awareness of the ‘fatal four.’ It’s a process we use to manage job site hazards — electrical, falls, stuck by or caught between. Those are the four ways an injury can happen on a project,” he explains. “We simply added COVID-19 as another layer of our repertoire; now we have a ‘fatal five.’”
With 13 board-certified safety professionals on a staff of about 283 people, Schlouch Incorporated gathered their resources, partnered with a trusted safety consultant, and quickly engineered procedures to govern their employees from the time a person leaves their home for work, to the time they return back home at the end of a work day.
“We recognized that COVID-19 mitigation, like any other hazard, requires keeping it off the job site — prevent it from entering, and preventing it from spreading if it does appear,” Schlouch continues. “Our team is used to safety precautions, so adding new layers was not unfamiliar or uncomfortable for us. It just required proper training and practice.”
Return to work
On 1 May, Pennsylvania permitted the construction industry to restart all projects. The six-week period of waiver operations provided Schlouch’s team a sort of ‘trial run’ opportunity to test and fine-tune their procedures. As their entire workforce returned, the safety protocols for COVID-19 were already established and in place.
Schlouch outlines the three priorities that were addressed in the development of his firm’s COVID-19 response.
- Define Standards
CDC requirements were changing on a daily basis in the beginning and having a plan for gathering the facts was important to ensuring that their processes were compliant and effective.
- Emphasize Education
Schlouch safety officials understand that nobody retains 100% of what they hear the first time. Constant repetition ensured that people became upskilled and properly educated.
- Manage Fear
Helping people feel safe at work, in the midst of all the fear on TV and social media, was important. Schlouch developed webinars and learning materials for families to better understand the situation.
We recognized that COVID-19 mitigation, like any other hazard, requires keeping it off the job site. Barry Schlouch, Co-founder & President Schlouch Incorporated
By involving the whole family in mitigation, Schlouch says that fear was significantly reduced. Their goal of having people feel safer at work than at home not only improves jobsite awareness but reduces the anxiety of families whose members were returning to those jobsites.
“This has always been our way,” concludes Schlouch. “The current environment may have shed a little more light on how we operate, but the safety of our people is always our highest governing concern. The business benefits then follow —our employees love it here. Our customer retention is extremely high. And the quality of work we’re able to deliver is maximized.”
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