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Overcoming Jobsite Barriers to COVID-19 Health & Safety

March 16 2020

Special to TAUC by Mark Breslin
CEO, Breslin Strategies Inc.

As contractors throughout our industry address the challenges of health and safety with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to identify four strategic considerations that may be missing from the standard advisories for senior management to implement on the jobsite.

1. Addressing the Cultural & Economic Barriers of Illness at Work

The construction industry culture is one where coming to work ill is not only tolerated but often expected. For me personally and many readers, we have gone to work many times with visible illnesses as a matter of course — thus the industry experiences illness in the workforce with greater regularity. In many instances, an employee who stayed home for illness could meet judgement, ridicule or even consequences to their employment.

This longstanding culture is now being challenged by the need for proactive management, and this falls directly on safety and supervisory field personnel. Most field workers have never been asked to stay home for symptoms that meet today's CDC standards. We need to immediately drive this message — that it is absolutely essential to stay home when sick — in order to change ingrained behaviors. Labor, management, safety directors and field supervision need to articulate this message with strong conviction.

Additionally, many field workers do not have the economic cushion to miss days of work. Our industry has many people in it who are at the margins of their resources. As an industry, we do not want to have workers choose to attend work while symptomatic because they cannot miss a paycheck. This economic pressure could cause personnel to compromise their own and others health and safety, and this too has to be addressed directly.

2. Helping with New & Unfamiliar Roles and Responsibilities for Field Leaders

What are field leaders expected to do when confronted with employees exhibiting illness on the job? Please make sure to give clear, concise, fair and consistent guidance to your safety directors, foremen and superintendents so they can be proactive on this issue. They will be the first line of observation for evaluating sick employees and prospectively recommending or taking action.

This is not a role they have ever had to embrace before, so your clear guidance and direct support will go a long way to establishing consistent and fair practices. In absence of this direction and support, we might expect a strong reluctance to take initiative.

3. Reframing to Overcome Difficulty: Having the Tough Conversations

Many field supervisors are reluctant to engage in discussions that have the potential to create tension, conflict, or debate. Others may be reluctant to deal directly with people that they consider friends. The degree of illness or subjective judgement can easily get in the way. Field leaders need to see this as trying to help people. This is not discipline or punishment – it is care and empathy combined with responsibility. In this case, the actions of a leader are quite like standard jobsite safety: lives are in their hands, and with that in mind, they must embrace the highest standards.

4. Communicating Effectively to Reduce Uncertainty and Fear

With policies affecting workers and workplaces changing almost daily, leaders have to communicate regularly and consistently on what courses of action are being taken. Even if the circumstances are beyond our control, we cannot forget that leaders bring calm to the storm by the way they respond during times of crisis.

The best part of our industry is the way people work together to do great things. We regularly overcome challenges and problems that were not anticipated. Let's use this as a platform to address this challenge together. We have the ability; we need to make sure we have the leadership that goes along with it.

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