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In the aftermath of the pandemic, many people were able to work remotely. But construction, considered an essential business in most areas of the country, continued. Most construction workers needed to maintain and build infrastructure, logistics terminals, power gen facilities and utility transmission and distribution networks can’t do their jobs from home.

While the CDC and OSHA both supplied guidance on protecting workers in these environments, there’s another danger lurking that should not be ignored. In “3 Key Reasons to continue Construction Training even amid the Pandemic,” Rachel Burris, in a blog post for NCCER, said training is one of the things that companies often cut back on when times are tough. But training workers to have the right skills, knowledge and qualifications is more important than ever. One of Burris’s reasons, increasing productivity, is particularly interesting.

A whitepaper published by JS Held University cites two studies (in the United Kingdom and the United States) on how the pandemic affected construction productivity. Both countries experienced 15% to 18% loss in productivity due to labor shortages, social distancing and jobsite mitigation measures, poor transfer of information while working remotely, and materials delays. The whitepaper cited a study by the Sheet Metal and Air Condition Contractor’s National Association and the National Electrical Contractors Association, which noted potential impacts to jobsite safety:

  • extra demobilization and remobilizations;
  • worker fatigue from anxiety and absenteeism;
  • off-shift work; and
  • altered material delivery and receiving procedures.

On average, construction companies spend 3.6% of their budgets on injuries, but only 2.6% on safety training. Yet, a Towers Perrin study of 50 multinational companies cited in a 2013 National Safety Council white paper “The Business Case for Investment in Safety,” found that over a 12-month period, companies with high levels of employee engagement outperformed those with less engaged employees. Having a strategic safety management system in place had the strongest effect on an organization’s competitiveness performance, sales and profitability.

Untrained employees open employers up to increased accident exposure. Another study cited by the National Safety Council attributed reduction in specific types of incidents by 20% to 50% to training programs. 

Training protects employers and employees, as employees who learn how to do jobs safely foster quality work. OSHA references to employer accountability to safeguard employers is extensive, including;

29CFR 1926.550 (a) General Requirements (1) The Employer shall comply… (5) The employer shall designate a competent person… (7)(ii) the employer shall implement the following procedures to safeguard employees…

Meanwhile, the current situation likely increases risk, further underscoring the need for ongoing training in the midst of the pandemic. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association warns, “New distractions created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the disruption of normal safety training activities are contributing to an increase in electrical contact incidents among [electric transmission and distribution] operations personnel.” Electric Cooperative safety officials speculate the uptick in accidents may be due to changes in work processes and increased temptations to adapt standard operating procedures.

The good news is that a number of employers of crane operators and riggers are being proactive in these respects. One national crane rental firm is making equipment safety and people safety a priority even in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic. This company is planning crane and equipment selection and pre-assembly and non-destructive testing inspections months in advance of the job. This enables personnel with the right qualifications to be available for inspections, reducing risk.  

An investor-owned utility in the southeast has adapted best practices from outside the energy sector. Its material handling crews were evaluated for their specific skill sets, so that each crew was self-sufficient, limiting interaction with outside crews. Formal assessment of individual crew member’s knowledge, skills, and abilities helps to identify gaps before the work begins. It also makes training more productive. These crews had developed a cohesive team dynamic. Less time was lost to establishing individual skills and strengths because the crew members are already familiar with each other.

In both cases, these employers have prioritized training and preparation rather than cutting back on it. The result—practices that are improving productivity and safety and are worth continuing even after the pandemic has passed.

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