The construction industry has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Things looked somewhat positive in March 2020 after the industry was designated an “essential” business. Work could go on—and by and large, it did.
Construction managers took the pandemic seriously, implementing new safety protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and trade groups like the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). And while many managers and companies have stayed strong in those protocols, issues out of their control have more recently bubbled to the surface.
“We are hearing that the supply chain for construction materials is in tatters right now,” said Brian Turmail, AGC’s vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives. “That factories are backed up and that the delivery of goods to construction firms has been disrupted by the pandemic, and that there are a lot of canceled or delayed projects.”
“In addition,” Turmail continued, “there are workforce shortages because people have been exposed or don’t feel safe coming back to work. And then there are people who come to work who test positive. The adrenaline we felt early on has worn off and it can be easy to slip up when on a jobsite and not stay socially distanced.”
Among the latest challenges facing the industry: a hesitancy among construction workers to receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
In February 2021, research firm Morning Consult released a report that asked nearly 17,000 adult workers across industries about their feelings on getting the vaccine. Overall, 56% of workers said they’d get the vaccine. But when broken down into industry, construction was near the bottom, with only 53% of its workers reporting they were willing to get immunized.
“That report was really concerning to us,” said Emily Cohen, executive vice president of United Contractors, a trade association that represents California-based union signatory contractors. “We are not going to get out of this pandemic if only 50% of our workforce is getting vaccinated.”
United Contractors quickly took action, and in March 2021 launched a campaign, “Roll Up Your Sleeves,” to educate construction firms all over the country about vaccine facts. The website includes resources like suggestions for on-site toolbox talks for contractors and lists of myths and facts to help educate the industry.
The industry as a whole has also taken notice of the hesitancy expressed by many construction workers.
Over seven days in April 2021, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC), a group of 30 trade associations from a variety of construction sectors, created “COVID-19 Vaccine Awareness Week.” The week involved the dissemination of a suite of tools and educational resources for construction managers and employees to learn from, all around vaccine awareness—and all of which are still available at www.buildingsafely.org.
“We felt it was time, as a coalition, along with the CDC, to raise awareness and provide educational resources for people to make their own decisions with the facts in front of them,” said Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development for Associated Builders and Contractors (a CISC member).
When asked why there is a high level of vaccine hesitancy within the construction industry, Sizemore said the answer is complicated.
“There are too many variables to say why this is happening,” he said. “Construction consists of an extremely diverse workforce. You look at that diversity and then you take into consideration the individual. There might be an aversion based on religion or based on something else. We aren’t pushing this campaign to be pro or con. It is simply about raising awareness so people can make informed decisions.”
Cohen points to a lack of facts as the culprit. “Combating misinformation is an ongoing part of the world we live in,” she said. “The best way to combat that is with education.”
The topic of incentivizing workers to get vaccinated is being discussed and written about within construction circles, but the jury is still out on if the practice is legal or even discriminatory according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The issue of mandating employees get vaccinated is also unclear. The government has yet to release rulings on if it is legal. While construction managers aren’t allowed to mandate, some of the companies that hire construction firms have decided to do so.
“We are hearing that private companies hiring contractors are requiring workers be vaccinated,” Cohen said. “In those cases, it isn’t the construction company mandating, but instead they might be saying: ‘if you don’t want the vaccine, that’s fine, but you can’t work on this project.’”
So, what can a construction employer do when an employee is hesitant to get the shot?
“Make sure you get the shot, tell your employees that you got it and be transparent with the facts,” Cohen said. “Explain that this is not political; that, instead, it is about public health and jobsite safety.”
More than anything, Cohen recommends treating COVID-19 and vaccine awareness just like any other construction industry safety issue.
“As the leader of a company, you set the expectation,” Cohen said. “The construction industry knows safety; we work with hazards every day. We know how to identify them, mitigate them, work with them safely. This is just another part of that.”