There is no question that Covid-19 has impacted virtually all industries, and construction is among those impacted most. Faced with possible material shortages and labor inefficiency, companies and governments have been forced to examine the economic feasibility of moving forward with current projects. But on those jobs involving a seasoned contractor employing highly skilled and trained union ironworkers, owners are finding that productivity is comparable to pre-shutdown levels.
This Q&A continues our series of highlighting this phenomenon by talking with many of the parties involved. Interviewed this month is Jack Falcone, President of Stonebridge Steel Erection in South Plainfield, NJ, whose current projects include Coney Island Hospital, LaGuardia Airport Delta Headhouse, and The Ronald O. Perelman Center for the Performing Arts.
Your company’s work erecting the steel for Coney Island Hospital and LaGuardia Airport was determined to be essential construction under State guidelines during the pandemic. What controls were implemented to prevent or reduce risk of Covid-19 exposure?
Although Coney was deemed an essential project, the job was shut down for a five-week period. The existing hospital was so overburdened, they thought it prudent to reduce all activity around the hospital in order to get the first wave under control. We were very close to topping out when they shut the project down at around the end of March with work resuming during the first week in May. In order to return to work, Stonebridge had to develop an entirely new set of pre-task plans and job-hazard analysis to address work-distancing and pandemic control best practices. We also had to review all of our normal steel erection tasks to determine how best to keep our people as far apart as we reasonably could and still get the work done. The first thing we did was shut down any common transportation on the job. On many projects, especially LaGuardia Airport with restricted access, the ironworkers coordinate carpooling using company vehicles. We cut carpooling across the board, stressed limited shanty and site-office trailer use, encouraging all breaks and meetings occur outside. The goal was to allow a functional jobsite while keeping people outside of these closed spaces as much as possible.
Prior to the pandemic, we had already adopted a lot of electronic-document control that naturally eliminated sharing of paper; we weren’t passing drawings, bolt lists, or trucking lists around. Each foreman has an iPad with all the drawings and all the documents needed to perform the work. Additionally, we tried to keep the gangs with the gangs only: the bolting gangs together, the raising gangs together, etc. This was for two reasons: to cut down on the interaction of our own forces and to allow the opportunity to more accurately contact-trace as possible exposure came up. The contact-tracing procedure was introduced later on, but we now have an internal system in place for when cases do come up on our jobs.
One of the biggest challenges for us has been with contract tracing. Any illness is a medical issue and must be handled with degrees of discretion. At LaGuardia Airport, due the project size, profile, and location, the owner is taking testing and protocol very seriously. In that setting, with around 1,000 tradesmen on the project, we had to determine how to effectively contact-trace cases without giving out personal information in order to protect individual privacy. We transmit the metadata of the individual cases rather than their specific information.
What were your biggest challenges and how were they overcome? Was it necessary to delay any work that you assessed as posing particular hazards for workers? Were material deliveries affected?
On the Coney Island Hospital, at the time the pandemic hit, all of the steel was fabricated and sitting in our yard in New Jersey, so we did not incur specific impacts due to material availability. Luckily, despite the shutdowns, we were able to travel freely between New Jersey and New York. I think everybody realized that if you cut off New Jersey from New York it would be catastrophic because so many people commute over the river. As far as performing work, our work remains outside and generally speaking work is performed in a group of two or three, so space can more easily be maintained. Areas of concern for us are ironworkers together in aerial lifts; connectors joining up at the hook when they’re going to cut a piece loose; situations where adequate space cannot be maintained. As far as executing the work, direct impacts are relatively small. We were impacted when positive Covid cases occurred. When that has happened and individuals must self-quarantine, the work has been affected. We cannot lay off people due to illness and the 14-day quarantine period, especially if wrapping weekends, is not enough time to bring on replacement manpower and recover meaningful progress. We have encountered situations where we have lost entire gangs. On more than one occasion we did lose entire gangs. In particular, on more than one occasion we have lost our deckers to quarantine. When this occurred, it prevented us from progressing the entire operation and completing areas of work. On LaGuardia Airport specifically, Delta has been a terrific partner and customer and they have worked with us to manage these challenges and get the job done.
We have been able to adopt Covid protocols and integrate additional safety measures into our normal work plans and progress the projects. However, when manpower is lost for a period of time, it does impact our ability to remain efficient.
Was the decking gang the only instance where a Covid-related shutdown affected you? What was that delay like?
Decking operations were the most impactful when manpower was affected. Coney Island was a unique project due to its passive netting requirements. The nature of this installation program requires that we fully deck each floor in order, rather than the two-floor derrick normally seen on steel buildings. In this scenario, the erection time before we absolutely must spread deck is shortened and we rely on that operation as an integral part of raising a vertical building. When we are erecting a building laterally, in the case of the airport, we can manage a lack of coverage decking more easily by erecting steel in a new area to buy ourselves time. As I noted earlier, the trouble is replacing manpower in a short window. The specialty tasks are harder to replace and with people out of work for around a weeks’ time, we cannot effectively fill that gap.
Coordination of the work in both home base and field offices depends on in-person communication. How did you accomplish this safely?
I think we’re all subject to Zoom-type meetings, and those are moderately effective. However, in person communication is necessary in many aspects of our work and we are doing just that as needed. In order to be effective, the office and project management team needs to support the field so long as the jobs are working. We have maintained an open office throughout the pandemic with a lighter staff presence. We have also allowed more flexibility in personal work schedules and instituted a work-from-home option when personal circumstances require it. Ultimately if we have to meet in person, we’re doing that as safely as we can.
How were special third-party inspections performed on site?
Like our intra-office work, with as much care as possible. PPE has changed and we’ve been issuing a lot more in the field related to Covid. We’re having shanty offices sanitized on a weekly basis, we are sending masks and gloves for people be as safe and as comfortable as possible, but everybody seems to have the attitude in this industry, ‘we didn’t work for a while but we all need to work, we need to eat’— whether it’s an ironworker or a project manager, we all have to do our job and do it safely.
Did you have any delays getting steel from the mills?
Not with Coney Island Hospital, however, on other projects, different parts of the supply chain were affected. Specifically, the detailing companies, which are mostly based overseas, were significantly impacted. Our understanding is that the infrastructure is not in place to support remote work. At LaGuardia, there was a midstream change in detailers because the job needed to continue and the original detailer could not perform work. Mill orders for work in progress had been placed pre-Covid and were not affected; in terms of new work awarded post-Covid, any mill orders that were placed missed the major shutdowns that occurred last spring.
How would you say overall performance has been affected during this time? Was Stonebridge as effective during the pandemic as it was before?
We did not see a measurable change in productivity, other than what I outlined before. The manpower went out there and did what they needed to do. New protocols were implemented and we’re getting through it.
How did you approach concerns about protecting workers’ family members from the virus?
We had to respect everyone’s personal decisions. In the beginning, there were workers that just went home and stayed home until the first wave subsided. Others were less concerned. We had to help manage everybody’s expectations and deal with a cross-section of beliefs and opinions and approaches to dealing with the situation. We worked with our key field personnel to emphasize that the primary concern is to keep everyone healthy and working. This approach has led to excellent participation from everyone involved.
What do you attribute that to?
We have been refining the Covid protocol every month and it is a daily safety topic. It has taken time and effort to depoliticize the issue and focus solely on the fact that this is about worker safety. I commend the field supervisors, especially in Local 361 where we have over 150 ironworkers right now, for taking this on from a position of leadership and helping us implement these protocols. They’ve really done a lot to turn it from something controversial into normal everyday activity.
Will you be adopting any new practices (derived from meeting challenges over the past several months) even when we return to a non-pandemic environment?
I hope it’s not more Zoom meetings, I’ve got to be honest. I love to see people in person and shake people’s hands. The variety of people you see in this business is one of my favorite parts of it and I’m hoping we can get back to it. In terms of what we’ve adopted that we keep long-term, I think we have a greater understanding of the importance of personal health. We will have more flexibility, allowing people to modify their work hours and possibly work from home if it is possible to do so and remain effective contributors. With respect to the field, our health and safety plans will continue to be updated with additional focus on the health and wellness of the trades on site.