Dredge Operators Adjust, Innovate During Pandemic

Like other sectors of the maritime industry, dredging is considered “essential” by the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the division of the Department of Homeland Security tasked with identifying critical infrastructure and essential workers during the response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That means, even during the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19, dredging work to maintain and deepen the nation’s ports and waterways marches on.

For leaders and mariners in the dredging industry, that designation carries a great sense of responsibility, not only due to the importance of the work dredging companies accomplish but also for the crews that carry on that work.

“First, we are very grateful for our status as ‘essential,’” said Mark Sickles, head of corporate and government relationship for Weeks Marine. “Weeks does not take that status for granted in any way. COVID-19 is a very serious threat to our employees’ health, not to mention a potential threat for each person to make a living and provide for their family.”

As such, dredging companies like Weeks are implementing protocols to both avoid the spread of the virus and continue operations. Sickles described how his company is handling crew changes and access to vessels.

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“The president of Weeks Marine has personally stressed to our people how important it is to follow social distancing practices when they are off work,” Sickles said. “When it is time to return to the job site, before he or she travels, a questionnaire is administered about their life circumstances. When they get to the vessel or job site, they are given another questionnaire, and their temperature is taken with every crew change.”

Dave Johanson, senior vice president and Gulf area manager for Great Lakes Dredge & Dock (GLDD), along with Bill Hanson, senior vice president for market development and government affairs for GLDD, said they’ve seen the duration of crew rotations doubled, effectively halving the chance of exposure.

“When possible, crews were transferred to projects geographically closer to home locations and preferably within driving distance,” Johanson and Hanson said in a joint statement.

Additionally, shift rotations and meal breaks have been staggered aboard GLDD vessels to further limit the size of group gatherings.

Across the board, companies have reported limiting or eliminating air travel in favor of vehicles. Where possible, staff members are working from home. Even on work sites, shoreside crews and vessel crews are not interacting.

Many dredging companies have been sharing these best practices on weekly COVID-19 status calls organized by the Council for Dredging & Marine Construction Safety (CDMCS). Michael Gerhardt, managing director of CDMCS, said the council has been hosting the calls since March 5, very early into the virus response. The weekly exchange of information between CDMCS members and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has produced a proactive posture for all. Early on, several large companies shared their protocols and COVID-19 response measures, which helped others develop their own internal practices.

Besides the calls, CDMCS has also been collating COVID-19-related documents and state and federal agency guidelines for quick access on its website.

Dredging companies and government officials have also partnered to adjust and innovate oversight protocols to limit access to dredges and dredge tenders. Gerhardt explained that the decision to conduct virtual engagements rests with each individual Corps district. He said most, if not all, districts have allowed virtual engagements for dredging contractors.

“They’re trusting contractors,” Gerhardt said. “We appreciate that trust.”

That flexibility and openness to creative collaboration has allowed dredging companies to continue crucial channel deepening and maintenance work, even with restrictions in place.

“Weeks is very thankful for the cooperation of the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard as we work through this pandemic,” Sickles said. “Both agencies are doing their oversight work remotely in deference to the overriding safety mandate.”

Johanson and Hanson said the close coordination with state and federal partners is the fruit of years’ worth of collaboration between dredging contractors and government officials.

“We have been working with governors a lot in recent years and were pleased to see them adopt the federal guidelines in developing their own state guidelines,” they said. “The Corps of Engineers proved again to be a great client and worked closely with us to make sure our operations and crew changes were able to continue and they have also committed to maintaining their bid schedule for projects for the rest of the year.  All this on top of their outstanding performance building hospitals around the country; hats off to the Corps.”

Johanson and Hanson said GLDD is employing “silent inspector systems such as DQMP (Dredging Quality Management Program) to enable remote tracking and quality assurance review of contractual requirements without the need of visiting our vessels.”

Devon Carlock, vice president of safety and government relations for Cottrell Contracting Corporation, said he’s seen a surge in the use of drones for keeping track of dredge work.

“We’re using drone technology to relay and observe our placement sites, whether the placement site is on a beach or to a confined disposal facility,” Carlock said. “And then for the dredge itself, that presence of aerial footage and observance of the dredge, which I have utilized anyway, but now more so due to the social distancing aspect.”

Carlock said he’s been using drones to observe both vessels and disposal sites for about four years now.

“It gives you another viewpoint, and in this time of COVID-19, you’re maintaining a safe distance from others,” Carlock said.

In addition to his role at Cottrell, Carlock is co-chair of the Council for Dredging and Marine Construction Safety, along with the Corps’ Albert Wong. Cottrell, like Sickles, Johanson and Hanson, praised the Corps for its partnership and flexibility during COVID-19 operations. So far, bids have proceeded as scheduled, work continues on site and contractors have had access to virtual tours in place of in-person site visits.

“The Corps has been very helpful with their virtual conference calls and things like that to inform the entire group on projects,” Carlock said. “It’s always nice to have boots on the ground and really walk around an area or see it with your own eyes, but for now this is the safest way to do it.”

Until the threat of the virus passes, those operations probably represent the “new normal,” but the safety, efficiency and essential nature of dredging remains business as usual.