Doing our job construction

How COVID-19’s Latest Wave is Affecting Sydney Construction

For the first time since the global COVID-19 pandemic began, construction workers in Australia were told to put down their tools. Now, as workers return to the jobsite with new restrictions and new safety protocols, we look to our North American neighbours to learn from their experience.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve in different ways around the world, thanks to the highly contagious delta variant now dominating the virus’ spread, Australia is experiencing construction site lockdowns for the first time.

Greater Sydney plunged into a two-week lockdown in July, and while economic modelling predicts losses in the billions of dollars, the long-term impact to construction businesses big and small is yet to be seen.

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia Chief Executive Adrian Dwyer told ABC News that “construction is not an abstract exercise, it’s real people building real things.” He continued, “it’s everyday stimulus that keeps the economy working—and that means we must work collectively to re-open as swiftly and safely as possible.”

Australia is among the first countries to fully lock down its construction sector due to COVID-19. In the United States, construction was quickly designated as an “essential” business at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, meaning construction sites by and large were free to remain active so long as they implemented safety protocols.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop other pandemic-induced factors from getting in the industry’s way, causing headaches on U.S.-based jobsites. For example, the pandemic propelled a surprise supply crunch for critical construction materials like timber, spiking the price for the material for much of 2020 and early 2021. Other supply chain problems related to the pandemic caused jobsites to delay or pause projects.

New site safety rules

On 31 July, a partial return to jobsites will see 60% of Greater Sydney’s construction workers back on the tools with a new set of rules—and new terminology. Phrases like “contactless tradies” are now entering our vocabulary as the New South Wales (NSW) government released a new COVID-19 Safety Plan checklist required for every jobsite.

Managing movement and safety onsite is a well-oiled machine for the country’s larger construction companies. Jon Davis, CEO of the Australian Constructor’s Association (ACA), whose members include Australia’s top contractors, recently explained to the ABC’s RN Breakfast that the construction industry has always been focused on managing risk, and COVID-19 is another one of those risks.

“We have staggered starts and breaks, temperature screens, QR codes for different sections of sites, regular cleaning, and density quotients,” Davis said. “We have very significant measures already in place.” However, Davis shared that in the coming weeks, the ACA will be speaking with the Government about implementing additional measures such as rapid antigen testing to avoid further lockdowns.

Similarly, Canada-based PCL Construction reduced employee populations onsite through staggered breaks, social distancing and increased hygiene and safety measures. In addition to these risk-mitigation efforts, PCL adopted new policies to help employees respond to the crisis.

In May 2020, company spokesperson Shane Jones shared with Built, the Bluebeam blog, that “in a situation that is changing daily, we are continually monitoring new developments and adjusting our response to help flatten the curve.” This included the creation of a Pandemic Response Committee, which meets regularly to adjust the company’s ongoing response to the virus.

Introducing ‘contactless tradies’

The NSW Government’s COVID-19 Safety Plan includes limits to the number of tradespeople onsite, the number of sites a tradesperson can visit in a week, and contactless deliveries. The new system is referred to as “contactless tradies,” and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro outlined the details in a recent media statement.

“Works in occupied premises including residential homes can also resume from this Saturday where there is zero contact between workers and residents. There will be a limit of up to two workers for indoor services and five workers for outdoor services, and works will only be possible where it is feasible for residents to vacate the area,” the statement said. “If contactless arrangements are not possible, work cannot go ahead.”

The Housing Industry Association’s Managing Director Graham Wolfe spoke on radio station, 2GB with a positive outlook, saying “the [contactless tradies system] can be done.”

“There will need to be a lot of systems in place. All the builders and trade contractors out there will have to exercise a very strong level of discipline in achieving that.” Wolfe said. “But there’s so much at risk. We’ve been able to do it for the last 18 months, and I’m sure we’ll be able to do it going forward.”

When site restrictions hit construction companies in the United States last year, the Lean Construction Institute advocated for “rapid-response building” methods typically put into action in emergency situations.

According to the organisation’s figures, High Lean Intensity projects are more likely to be completed under budget and ahead of schedule, with the added benefit of keeping contact and movement onsite to a minimum. Using a “just in time” system, Lean projects ensure that materials are exactly where they need to be when they are needed.

Increased use of prefabricated materials is also improving efficiencies and minimising contact on jobsites in the United States. “The more we are prefabricating, the more work that can be happening simultaneously in a factory-like setting and then brought to the site and installed,” Hill said.

Support for construction businesses

This partial return to Sydney jobsites is just one step forward on a long road to recovery for construction businesses. The Federal Government, meanwhile, has stepped in to support eligible workers with a COVID-19 Disaster Payment. While the NSW Government’s COVID-19 Business Grant will help businesses that can demonstrate a decline in turnover, the real challenge is cash flow, according to ACA CEO Jon Davis.

“When these sites start back up, we will come under pressure to make up for lost time, and that’s an issue for a lot of the smaller businesses,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, almost 25% of business insolvencies in Australia are construction businesses. It’s overrepresented and this is only going to compound the problem.”

It’s estimated that more than 75,000 people that make up Greater Sydney’s construction workforce live in one of the eight local government areas (LGAs) that remain in lockdown, and $7.8 billion worth of projects are located there. The impact is felt by construction companies of all sizes, with major projects still on pause or operating with a heavily reduced workforce onsite.

A spokesperson for Multiplex shared with the Australian Financial Review that it is prioritising the safety of its workforce and community as it tries to continue productive work on its Sydney sites.

In the early days of COVID-19 in the United States, Kansas-based Straub Construction President Parker Young connected daily with a group of contractors across the country to share strategies. By implementing a business continuity plan, the company was able to respond quickly to changing jobsite restrictions.

From the beginning, Straub was running analytics for weeks or months of low or no activity onsite to see how long the company could survive and maintain payroll. “It brought calm to a very tumultuous situation,” Young said. “It set the tone in the very beginning that as a unit, as a family, we were all going to get through this together.”

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