No Working from Home at Construction Sites but Virus Safety Precautions in Place

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The question of whether one of his company’s construction projects is going to be shut down is one that Paul Johnson awakes to every morning. 

Johnson’s firm, Adolph Johnson & Son Co. in Mineral Ridge, is among several in the region that are working to complete jobs as they make adjustments at their worksites to implement protective measures intended to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

“There is one project we expected would start next month and they’re saying it probably won’t go until summer now,” said the president of Johnson & Son.

In western Pennsylvania, Shell Chemical Appalachia, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell, announced Wednesday that it would halt work at the ethane cracker plant under construction in Monaca to implement “additional mitigation measures” aligned with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the 386-acre work site in Beaver County.  

Locally, contractors prepared for projects to be postponed, canceled or, in some cases, accelerated, even as they implemented measures to address the outbreak, which already has resulted in closings of retail stores, dine-in restaurants, sports and entertainment venues and, as of Wednesday, hair and nail salons.

“All of our jobs are working,” said Joe DeSalvo, president of DeSalvo Construction Co., Hubbard. Those jobs include Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC’s new dealership building and corporate headquarters in Boardman, the Community Literacy, Workforce and Cultural Center under construction in Campbell, the banquet center at the Eastwood Mall in Niles, and Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Services’ $31 million community in Liberty Township. 

Still, the company is following the changing guidelines “to provide a safe workplace environment for all the trades and the owners’ representatives,” DeSalvo said. Far fewer than the 50-person limit in the CDC’s guidelines are at work on any site, he said.  

“Actually, our industry is pretty well geared toward working through this type of situation because we have the ability to protect ourselves and the need to protect ourselves while we’re working,” he continued. “People are accustomed to using personal protective gear. Trades are typically wearing gloves and [protective] eyewear and they’re not in real close proximity to one another usually.” 

DeSalvo Construction maintains clean worksites at all of its projects and has “doubled down” on efforts to make sure everyone is safe, with antibacterial cleaners in the temporary facilities at the sites, he said. 

At Adolph Johnson & Son, “We’re trying to take the precautions that they recommend as far as washing hands and keeping distance from people and that sort of thing,” Johnson said. 

The general contractor is doing a project for a steel company in Warren and is preparing to start construction in a couple weeks on the Sheetz gas station and convenience store in Boardman, he reported. The company is advising field personnel to keep their distance from one another whenever they can, wash their hands frequently and sanitize their tools. 

“If there’s somebody they see is sick, we tell them to go home,” he said. 

The current environment has “a lot of unknowns” and “a lot of people concerned,” said Eric Carlson, president of Joe Dickey Electric Co. Among the projects his company is working on is the $170 million Homegoods regional distribution center in Lordstown for TJX Companies Inc.  

The company is trying to implement social distancing by minimizing group meetings and stressing the importance of other CDC recommendations such as hand washing and staying home if sick. Like other contractors, Carlson said the nature of construction work lends itself to social distancing. In addition, workers now take lunch breaks and other breaks in their cars rather than in a common break area.   

“Luckily our crews are normally spaced out anyways,” Carlson said.

Boak & Sons in Austintown has taken several precautions, including fogging the entire office and its fleet of trucks, owner Sam Boak reported. Employees have been instructed not to use anyone’s tools but the ones assigned to them and not to show up for work if they’re sick.  

“We give them wipes and gloves to protect themselves,” Boak said. 

Vendors have been advised not to visit and the company has changed where people work within the offices so employees are typically eight or more feet apart, farther than the six-foot guidance from CDC. Any paperwork the company takes in is placed in plastic freezer bags and held for “a few days, just to keep everybody safe,” Boak said.      

As for the skilled trades, “We’re still working fairly strong. We’re not seeing a lot of effects,” said Tony DiTomasso, president of Carpenters Local 171 in Youngstown and secretary/treasurer of Western Reserve Building Trades. 

Local 171 has several members working at the South Field Energy project in Wellsville. Changes there include how workers report and how and when they take lunch, often in their vehicles, DiTomasso said. 

Although none of DeSalvo Construction’s projects have shut down because of the outbreak, the company’s president is “mindful of the possibility,” DeSalvo said. In terms of timeline, many of the jobs “are in a place where we’re not left in as much limbo as we might be if we were just breaking ground on those projects,” and most of the products, materials and equipment needed to complete them are in hand and in reach. 

“There’s some health projects that we’re working on that I suspect may be put on hold, but others are going to be deemed pretty essential,” he said, adding that some might be accelerated. 

Jobs in hospitals and health-care projects are being evaluated, DiTomasso said. “Guys are being sent to other projects or asked to stay home.”

Johnson is optimistic about long-term prospects for the economy. 

“This is going to be a temporary setback for the economy,” Johnson predicted. “I don’t have much doubt that we’ll recover from it but how long that’s going to take is a big question mark right now.”  

Pictured: Construction workers are working at the site of the TJX warehouse and distribution faciity under construction in Lordstown.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.