Safety
Close up view of microbes

Keep It Clean

Construction is a dirty job–but it doesn’t have to be an unclean one, and it can’t afford to be. After the pandemic, onsite hygiene and sanitation are more important than ever.
By Rachel E. Pelovitz
January 30, 2023
Topics
Safety

Construction jobs have a lot of components: supply chain, materials, labor, project management, scheduling, toolbox talks, personal protective equipment, security, job costing, heavy machinery, contracts and more. Throw in new technologies such as robotics, aerial surveillance, virtual reality and others, and it can make your head spin. In all the planning, managing and building that goes into a project, there’s one critical, universal component that is often overlooked (and, in fact, has never been directly covered by Construction Executive). Onsite hygiene and sanitation, which includes onsite bathrooms, affects project progress, worker morale and safety standards. In a modern, post-COVID-19 world, contractors can’t afford to ignore the subject—if you do, you could soon find your project going down the drain.

FEWER BATHROOMS, MORE PROBLEMS

Every part of a construction job has its complications. Supply chain is affected by everything from COVID-19 to the war in Ukraine to shipping and freight. Labor turns on the economy, education, salary and benefits. Security is an evolving issue involving onsite personnel, cameras and key cards. Onsite hygiene has its own, unique set of bugaboos—in addition to facing the rest of the industry’s obstacles. Glen Elrod, vice president of sales and marketing at ACE Enterprises Inc. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has been working at the waste-management vendor for more than 14 of its 50 years in business. According to Elrod, the company faces labor issues (“We’ve had a discussion about cutting some areas out that we now service, so we can stay compact”); fleet difficulties (“We can’t get trucks. We like to flip our trucks every 150,000 miles, but we’re going to have to run them longer”); and supply complications (“The chemical we use is up over 120%; our toilet paper has doubled in price; tires are up about 60%; diesel went up to $3.50 overnight”).

But in Louisiana, there is an extra concern. “What’s even worse is our humidity here,” Elrod says, “and it affects the potties.”

Upkeep and maintenance of onsite bathrooms—using them is just the first step—is a significant part of keeping sites hygienic and workers safe from illness. Logistics are intense. “The ratio is eight workers to one potty on a 40-hour workweek,” Elrod says. “Anything outside that 40-hour workweek, we’d have to add more potties. If there is shift work, and construction is occurring seven days per week, you need to increase service. We do twice-a- day service, morning and evening, for those customers with two shifts."

That scenario, however, assumes that port-a-potties are the only option when it comes to onsite bathrooms. What are the alternatives? If you’re working in a pre-existing commercial space, using public restrooms would seem to be the easiest solution—but that setup has its own kinks to work out. “You basically have two options on a job,” says Trip Textoris, co-owner of Vernick, Matter Fabs and Architectural Interior Restorations Inc. in Cleveland. “You either have an out-of-the-ground job with port-a-potties, or, sometimes, there is access to restrooms that you share with the general public.” In that circumstance, Textoris says, “keeping those spaces clean and leaving them like you found them is always a challenge.”

Construction is a “dirty” job—workers might track in dirt, mud or worse if the jobsite is at a chemical plant like some of Elrod’s clients. Textoris, who started working as a carpenter in high school and spent years onsite, admits to eating “plenty of white-bread sandwiches with dirty fingerprints on them because I couldn’t clean my hands anywhere.” This reality also comes with a stigma—the perception that the people are as dirty as the work and shouldn’t be able to access public bathrooms that they might “destroy,” as Elrod puts it.

“It’s just a dirtier job,” Textoris says. “You’re handling metal studs or dirty pipes and your hands are dirty. You can’t wash your hands in a white sink and not get it a little bit dirty. Before long, we’re not allowed to use those facilities anymore, and they’ll bring in the temporary option.”

This is further complicated by who has responsibility for deciding what kind of bathrooms to provide—that is, the decision makers in this area are usually owners of a project rather than contractors or subcontractors. “We’re rarely doing projects where we’re in charge of the facilities,” says Textoris, whose companies build medical-grade cleanrooms. “The issue is that owners don’t want you to use their restrooms that are shared; but they also don’t want to pay to have nice ones or for an alternative. And that’s where the key is.”

Unsurprisingly, it all comes back to how much someone is willing to pay for the comfort of employees who, although working on their job, also work for a different company. “The owner is always paying for it one way or another, right? Construction is still very much a low-bid environment, so nobody is going to carry the extra cost for mobile toilet stations with running water and proper hookups,” Textoris says. “Construction workers just have to accept whatever is there.”

MORALE FIBER

But bathrooms aren’t just a matter of necessity—they affect worker morale in a direct and intimate way. “I don’t know if the issue is cleanliness so much as comfort,” Textoris says. “When we have a job with proper access to toilets and facilities, it just makes a happier worker in general.”

Elrod is more blunt: “Without restrooms for 200 construction workers, for example, your morale will go into the toilet if you don’t have facilities for all of them to use. And you’re not going to be very efficient if they have to go offsite.”

Bathrooms aren’t the only creature comfort that can improve a worksite. “Air quality on jobsites is a really important thing that gets overlooked,” Textoris says. “They need PPE from breathing in dust and dirt.”

Workers also need clean places to eat lunch and take breaks in a hygienic fashion. “Restrooms are not the only item to address with hygiene,” says Joe Xavier, senior director of health and safety for Associated Builders and Contractors. “Clean hands, clean air and a cleaner worksite all improve the health and safety of the workforce. From killing germs to reducing slips, trips and falls; from eliminating dust to capturing contaminants; from elimi- nating dust-creating activities to providing walkways to installing ventilation systems—a clean jobsite is a safe jobsite.”

CULTURE SHIFT

The pandemic shined a spotlight on cleanliness as a part of safety—in every industry across the globe—like never before. “Perhaps the one thing from COVID-19 that we can look back on and call ‘good’ is hygiene,” Xavier says. “Understanding the need for improved hand washing and restroom facilities came to the forefront.”

There were short-term results—Elrod says that ACE Enterprises invested in four truck-loads of hand wash—but, longer term, the global consensus has moved toward a more holistic culture of cleanliness, which has a huge impact on those working in “dirty” jobs. “COVID-19 moved hygiene into high gear,” says Pete Denham, workforce development manager at ISC Constructors.

Ultimately, that change will persist only if encouraged from the top. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has found a direct correlation between the attitude of the front-line supervisor and the health and safety of individual crew members. “The contractor has to push that,” Elrod says. “That’s a culture they have to have within their companies.”

Xavier agrees. “Nothing happens by itself,” he says. “Just like everything worth doing, it involves leadership, asking for input, planning, training and accountability. If the supervisor cares about good hygiene, it creates both the expectation and support for the crew to be proactive with hygiene.”

To achieve sitewide hygiene, contractors must use the same approach as a safety briefing or harassment training—all employees should work together to keep the site clean on behalf of the company and for their fellow workers. Rather than an individual problem, it becomes a team effort. “Ask associates to do their part in keeping the site clean and report any issues or shortages (such as paper products) to supervision,” Denham says. “Conduct a daily evaluation for any need to the facilities. Use signage encouraging hand washing and mention it during the weekly safety message.”

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

For contractors, beyond the safety angle, there is a business case for actively promoting hygiene. “It’s definitely a factor for retention,” Denham says. “Due to worker shortages, many places have upped their game (such as with air-conditioned lunch tents, Wi-Fi and microwaves) to attract workers to their projects.”

When the job is already difficult, with the potential for long hours, heavy lifting, complicated machinery, shifting priorities and the possibility of physical injury, workers need to feel that employers care about them at a human level. With an already-significant workforce shortage getting worse, onsite hygiene shouldn’t be considered a benefit but a baseline guarantee. “If there’s anything you really don’t want to cut corners on, it’s facilities,” Elrod says. “You have to take care of the people on your site. If you don’t, the productivity goes down, because they are spending more time moaning and groaning about facilities than doing the work.”

Noting that the average banker in a suit isn’t asked to use a port-a-potty in the cold, Textoris highlights the importance of making some things on a hard job easier and more comfortable. “It’s a fulfilling job,” he says, “but it’s good to be treated more like a person. Especially when you’re working in an area such as an office, where those office workers treat construction workers like a different class of person. That can be frustrating. Even if you’re doing a dirty job, you still deserve a decent place for privacy.”

“Everyone wants to have a nice, clean place to do their business,” Elrod says. “Everyone wants to come onsite, be safe and clean and then go home safe.”

by Rachel E. Pelovitz

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