Three major US tunnelling projects shared stories about adapting to the challenges raised by Coronavirus in an online seminar held on 22 May. The Underground Construction Association (UCA) of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) organised the event, Underground Construction in the COVID Age, reports Kristina Smith.
Some common themes emerged from the presentations by three speakers: Grant Milliner of Kiewit, Mike Smithson of Skanska and Dan Schall of Barnard. Engineering ingenuity, strong safety cultures, and adaptability all featured in the talks, which were moderated by Mike Roach, chief estimator at Traylor and Erika Moonin, president of Moonin Associates.
Millener, who is project manager on New York City’s Rondout Bypass Tunnel Project with JV contractor Kiewit-Shea, outlined some of the new procedures they had introduced to make the site as safe as possible for the people working there. Measures include temperature checks for every person coming onto site, aggressive cleaning regimes including sanitising the personnel hoist, Mantrip, tools and equipment, and keeping crews separate by using video links rather than in-person meetings between supervisors. Kiewit-Shea also set up a Covid 19 Response Team – now dubbed the ‘Social Distance Cops’ – to police behaviours on site.
In March, when disinfectant and hand sanitiser was like gold dust, the project team responded by making its own. “We got too much lavender oil the first time, but we perfected that,” recalled Millener on early batches of sanitiser.
One of the most important things is monitoring absences, explained Milliner, and carrying out a risk assessment when they return to work, considering exposure and symptoms. The project has had 12 tests taken for Covid 19, none of which came back positive.
Smithson reported about two LA Metro projects: the Regional Connector Transit Project where Skanksa is in joint venture with Traylor and Section 1 of the Purple Line Extension where Skanska is in joint venture with Traylor and Shea. His presentation focussed more on some of the challenges and behavioural issues that have emerged.
Initially, many people did not want to come to site, said Smithson: “At first there was a significant amount of uncertainty about whether we are even considered essential services or not,” said Smithson. “Many subcontractors refused to come into work…we have come a long way in the last few months.”
Skanska has developed different PPE combinations, for different levels of risk, clearly communicated with the aid of photos. With face shields and face masks, one of the challenges is communication, said Smithson: “In an underground environment where you have fans running, TBMS, it’s already a noisy environment and already very difficult to communicate.” Misting off glasses and shields, and the risk of workers overheating, was one potential hazard highlighted by all three speakers.
One unexpected impact of having some of the project team working from home was a barrage of extra work for people on site, as the homeworkers contacted them with questions that they couldn’t answer for themselves by a walk round the job, reported Smithson. “People at home were inundating the field with email after email after email. That was one of the things I would never have expected.”
With 700 craft on Skanksa’s two LA Metro project, there have been 12 positive test results, with twice as many suspected cases which could not be confirmed due to a lack of testing early on. There is a formal procedure of notifications once someone has tested positive, which is handled by Skanska’s human resources department, rather than by the on-site team, to avoid burdening the project team with more extra tasks.
Both projects are also spending 15 minutes more in the mornings on safety briefings. With high levels of absenteeism, it is important to make sure that everyone understands what is happening on site that day, said Smithson.
Skanka doesn’t check temperatures on site but requires people to self-check. “We have zero tolerance for an illness symptom,” said Smithson. “Even if they have allergies or sniffles, they are sent home.”
Dan Schall spoke about the “trials and tribulations” faced by the Barnard-Bessac project team on the Silicon Valley Clean Water Gravity Pipeline Project in California. “It was ‘learn as you go’,” says Schall.
In the initial, planning, phase, the project team turned to risk assessment to help them understand and manager the additional hazards posed by Covid. The result was a 29-item plan identifying the high-risk areas of the project.
Schall described how some measures have changed over time. “The message to our guys was ‘if it’s not working or if it’s difficult, change it, add to it or delete it’.” For instance, initially the capacity of the Mantrip was cut from 12 to three but later glass partitions added later to accommodate more people. Barnard-Bessac closed the Dry House at first, following feedback from the workers, opened it up again with the addition of a professional cleaning regime added between shifts.
There was lots of involvement and consultation with the workers, unions and the health and safety authorities. “It came down to the safety culture. Really, employees have to look after themselves, and look after each other,” said Schall.
Beyond the challenges posed to all projects from working safely with the shadow of Covid, Silicon Valley projects had to cope with Health Orders which were updated three times between March and May. The third update called for third party safety inspections to be introduced.
“The order came out with very little detail or instruction as to how to perform this,” said Schall.
Barnard-Bessac and neighbouring contractor Shea-Parsons came up with a good solution to this problem: they swapped safety officers. “They are inspecting our sites and we are inspecting theirs,” said Schall. “It’s a great way to collaborate with an organisation that has the same safety culture that we have, rather than using some consultant who’s just coming off the street.”
Barnard also instigated a one-hour company-wide weekly video catch up where all its project teams could share tips and advice. “It was a good collaborative way to share and have people talk,” said Schall. The company brought in outside experts, including a doctor, to brief the its site teams on various related subjects.
One of the several questions raised at the end of the session asked whether the projects had a ‘force majeure’ clause in their contract and, if not, what other clauses had been applied. The consensus was that a pandemic does not fall under the definition of a force majeure; all projects had put their owners on notice, but no formal contractual agreements had been made.
Although the overriding message to emerge from the three presentations was very positive, highlighting the projects’ meticulous and logical approaches and the willingness of workers to work within the new systems, there was one large cloud on the horizon. These new procedures will have slowed certain aspects down and, if they impact on the programme and end date, there will be the question of how owners should compensate contractors.
“We are seeing significant additional costs and lost productivity,” said Smithson. “Buying disinfectant and PPE is easy to quantify, even lost production time at the beginning and end of shifts. The inefficiencies are tougher to quantify but they are happening.”
Schall concurred: “There’s no question we are seeing inefficiencies. The big impact was very high absenteeism at the onset.”
The seminar is now available to view on the UCA of SME website.