By Ashley Fahey, Real Estate Editor
Some of the only sounds heard today in uptown or South End — normally the busiest places to be in Charlotte during a work week — are from cranes, jackhammers or beeping trucks.
Work largely continues on building the Queen City while most everything else has shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction has been deemed an essential business that can operate under the state of North Carolina and Mecklenburg County’s stay-at-home orders.
But the construction industry — which employs about 87,000 across the region, according to the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance — has had to figure out how to keep business going while also putting in new, strict measures to keep workers healthy and job sites safe.
“The construction industry is a unique workplace,” said Dave Simpson, president of Carolinas Associated General Contractors, a trade association that represents about 800 construction companies in the Carolinas. “If you’re out doing highway construction, a lot of times, there’s natural social distancing. If you’re in an enclosed building and you’re hanging drywall, it’s a little bit harder.”
Allowing construction work to continue during the pandemic has become a somewhat contentious topic in other jurisdictions in the United States. In Boston, Mayor Martin Walsh earlier this month ordered all construction work to stop — when first issued, it was a two-week ban, but the order has since been extended indefinitely. In south Florida, where construction is deemed an essential business, some builders have said it’s impossible to keep workers safe from coronavirus on job sites and have called for an industry-wide ban.
In Charlotte, a few construction firms have voluntarily shut down sites but most have continued work, albeit with several new procedures in place.
In fact, some general contractors recently formed a local industry forum called 4C — Charlotte Commercial Construction Coalition — to facilitate discussion among firms on best practices. It was spurred because of the current pandemic but the group says it intends to continue long term.
By Tuesday morning, 4C included 55 participants, 24 general contractors and inspectors from the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The group intends to meet by phone twice a week, discussing topics like workplace safety, social distancing, access to personal protective equipment and supplies, and worker morale.
“In times of crisis, we are better as colleagues than competitors,” said Marcus Rabun, Myers & Chapman CEO and 4C organizer, in a statement. “Deemed an essential business by the county and state, this forum allows GCs to compare operational notes, share information and have consistent procedures on project sites to ensure safety for all.
On some commercial projects, there could be hundreds of workers on a site at a given time. Traditionally, tradespeople must work in tight quarters.
That’s all had to change with the current pandemic. Many general contractors now have different trades working on different shifts, and workers are staggering their breaks. Meetings have gone virtual.
Social distancing has been the hardest thing to work around, said Chris Butlak, executive vice president at Barringer Construction. The company has put blue tape on elevator floors and installed other visual cues measuring out six feet so workers know how far away to stand on sites.
Barringer has also created bright yellow T-shirts with boldface wording on it for workers to wear. On the front: “I’m essential. Stay away from me.” The backs of the shirts list Barringer’s five key rules for keeping sites safe.
Otherwise, Butlak said, Barringer has asked project teams to devise new methods of completing tasks that normally require close physical contact, such as installing a door.
Construction work involves a lot of shared equipment, anything from hand tools to buck hoists. Contractors are asking workers not to share equipment and are sanitizing frequently touched objects several times a day.
Many general contractors are now implementing temperature screening at sites before employees begin work. Those who have an elevated temperature are asked to leave.
David Hamilton, project executive at Batson-Cook Construction, said his and other firms have had to make adjustments quickly and frequently, looking to the Centers for Disease Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state labor departments for guidance.
Many construction firms are merely trying to keep up with the pace of new information, guidelines and measures to keep workers safe and sites operating. Hamilton said he’s spending anywhere between 20% and 25% of his time figuring out preparedness, safekeeping and changes in policy, especially since different jurisdictions have different rules.
“We’re dealing with something we’ve never experienced before,” he said. “It’s changing almost hourly.”
Stores have been wiped out of goods — most notoriously, toilet paper but also disinfectant wipes and cleaning products — and construction firms have, too, faced a shortage of supplies needed to keep sites sanitary and clean.
Butlak said employees have addressed that through homemade hand sanitizers made with isopropyl alcohol and mixing bleach to make cleaning solutions.
There have been a few hiccups within the supply chain for materials used in construction projects, especially things sourced from China or Italy. Hamilton said Batson-Cook has had in the past few months sourced some materials domestically although, he added, the company already had a system in place that was developed after federal tariffs were implemented last year.
Myriad news outlets have reported a critical need for N95 masks — considered the most efficient in filtering out airborne particles — for medical workers. About 600 N95 masks have been donated by construction companies to hospital systems, Simpson said.
Bill Stricker, utility division manager and National Center for Construction Education and Research administrator at Carolinas AGC, said workers who typically wear N95 masks to cut concrete, for example, are using different kinds of respirators instead.
General contractors are devising “what if” plans in case a more restrictive order that prohibits construction activity is put into place locally or statewide. Even if sites have to shut down, business does not, Butlak said. Employees could, for example, pursue online training, such as the OSHA 30-hour class.
CAGC last week wrote letters to the governors of North and South Carolina urging that construction be considered an essential business under any type of executive order. Under North Carolina’s stay-at-home orders, construction is deemed an essential business. South Carolina has not issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Simpson said in an interview the “pioneer spirit” of the construction industry has become especially prevalent during the current crisis.
“The construction industry naturally is fraught with challenges — there are no better problem solvers than the construction industry,” he said. “They’re looking at what we need to do, they’re looking out for their employees and they’re moving ahead as cautiously and as quickly as they can.”