Representatives from four dredging companies described their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic during a webinar sponsored by the Western Dredging Association (WEDA) Safety Commission July 27. Margaret Davis, vice president of Hile Associates, moderated the event; Julie Hile, WEDA Safety Commission chair, created whiteboard bullet points as the participants spoke; and Kathryn Thomas, vice president of Business Development at ANAMAR, facilitated the webinar and fielded real time questions to present to the participants. Eighty-five people were logged in to the event at its peak attendance.The webinar was titled “Survive and Thrive: How COVID-19 Is Driving Better, Safer Dredging Operations.”
David Simonelli, chief operating officer and president of the Dredging Division at Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company; Henry Schorr, vice president of Manson Construction Company; Mike Binsfeld, chief operating officer of J.F. Brennan Company Inc.; and Dana Trierweiler, principal of Infrastructure Alternatives Inc., responded to questions posed by members of the Western Dredging Association Safety Team. Across the board, they described success in preventing and limiting the introduction of the virus on their vessels and support facilities.
Dredging was designated Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce on March 22 by the Department of Homeland Security, so other than short work stoppages when the virus was discovered to be widespread in the United States in March, employees in the industry have continued to work.
Davis opened the meeting by describing the scope of response necessary for a dredging company.
“Guidelines for dealing with the pandemic go beyond normal workplace guidelines and will include creative ways to sanitize areas on dredges, boats and other vessels,” she said. “To be effective, the protocols must be consistent and followed by every shift, every day, including visitors, vendors and others who board the dredge, and they must also protect the confidentiality of the health records of employees who are screened upon boarding and leaving the vessel. Contact tracing plans must be put into place throughout the company and including anyone managing others.
“For most of us, this is our first pandemic,” Davis added, “and it is new, real and important to all of us. We can’t control what employees do outside of work but can influence them and encourage safe practices at home.”
Questions For The Panel
How did your company respond to the need to set up companywide effective safety protocols with little or no notice?
All four panelists reported that their companies began putting COVID-19 safety protocols in place in March when the danger was made public. For all, discovering accurate information on the virus in the face of conflicting information being disseminated was a challenge, but all depended on the Centers for Disease Control, (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for defining their company policies, which included testing for symptoms, wearing face masks, social distancing, washing hands and wiping down work surfaces after use, in addition to tracing contacts with other people to identify the source if a person is infected.
All four companies stated that these and other protocols will likely become standard in their companies, and all have been able to limit, and in one case eliminate, COVID-19 infection among their employees.
How did your company’s existing safety culture inform your COVID response?
“(GLDD) began our IIF (incident and injury free) journey in 2005,” Simonelli said. “Fifteen years later, we live by the safety code every day, which is based on care and concern for one’s colleagues. Because our IIF protocol was already in place, we got aggressive and responded to the virus quickly. A command team was set up to institute protocols across the company, and four months after the initial response, this includes COVID testing.”
Trierweiler said Infrastructure Alternatives (IA) had an existing safety culture, but that the virus “caught us by surprise.”“There was a lot of apprehension in the company,” Trierweiler said. “We didn’t know what was true (based on conflicting stories being aired by various outlets), so we followed the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines, along with our Michigan state guidelines.”
Binsfeld explained that J.F. Brennan & Company has always pushed to maintain a culture that encourages people to speak out.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we asked employees to reach out to their contacts and acquaintances as to what is necessary in handling the virus,” he said. “This allowed them to have ‘skin in the game,’ so that all in the company would be comfortable with the procedures and protocols put in place.”
Schorr said, “Manson is an IIF company, and we do our utmost to take care of people. It is a core value, and the virus response is all about how we keep our people safe.”
“We set up a COVID tracking team,” Schorr explained. “Incoming and outgoing crews don’t mix at all; and we look at testing employees if a family member is at risk, such as a worker in a hospital environment or other high-risk environment,” he said. “Our goal is to keep people safe as they come into the workplace.”“This is a shot in the arm for those of us who had good safety plans in place already,” Davis said.
What did your company decide were the best strategies for COVID communication?
Binsfeld described how, in early March, “there was a level of unrest in our company [that] coordinated with the 24-hour news cycle.” “We created a risk management team led by a safety manager,” he said. “This team met every day and determined to follow CDC guidelines while consulting experts, including friends at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.”Once the team had a base plan, the company conducted online town hall meetings with call-ins from every project in the company. Job sites remained fully manned, but offices were shut down where possible.
“Everything we did was aimed at getting people back to work,” Binsfeld said. “We needed to make sure our communication was consistent and constant. Asking how the employees were doing allowed all employees to provide input if they desired if they had heard conflicting information.
“The team also addressed the concerns of people working from home,” he added, “assuring them that it’s OK to be out of work and that they understood things besides work-related tasks it was OK to do during the work day.”
Schorr reported that Manson employees experienced anxiety and stress over not knowing what COVID information was real, especially on hopper dredges and other live-aboard vessels. They worried about going home after possibly contracting the virus from other employees.
Manson developed a COVID website containing memos from all Manson locations. Outreach captains were designated, and the company continued to evaluate the best available science, which was communicated to all managers whenever they met.
“COVID is likely the greatest challenge any of us have faced,” Simonelli said. “It has many of the same work force concerns we dealt with before COVID and forced a step-back to reinforce new practices that were put in place to control the virus.
“We keep our eye on CDC guidelines, and research new marine guidelines while addressing misinformation,” he said.Of special concern is the hopper crew confined together for a week at a time. GLDD began a newsletter for these crews titled “Staying Together While Apart.”
At the company’s Safety IIF week, COVID protocols from other states were studied to make sure all understand the best safely practices.
GLDD’s support personnel are all working remotely, Simonelli said.
Infrastructure Alternatives was unable to stop its services to its customers for even a day, Trierweiler said. As a drinking water and wastewater treatment company that includes a dredging and sediment remediation team, the company serves 120 communities and employs 70 to 80 licensed operators, the administrative offices have been kept open in order to provide needed support to the operators, he said.
“We stressed the accepted protocol to the employees— social distancing, washing hands and wiping down personal work spaces—and these are working,” Trierweiler said. “We have had no cases (of COVID in the company).”Thomas, as technical facilitator for the meeting, received questions from attendees as the panelists were speaking. One question was, “How do you cope with asymptomatic cases?”
Researchers believe a majority of people with the virus are asymptomatic, meaning many could be unknowlingly spreading the virus to those more at risk. All panel members reported relying on masks and social distancing to protect against colleagues with asymptomatic cases or extremely light cases. Schorr reported that while they hadn’t discovered any asymptomatic cases, they did have one person present symptoms during a hopper dredge shift. The managers immediately replaced the crew and decontaminated the dredge.
What social impulses are you seeing in your team as things open back up?
Trierweiler reported that IA’s employees are apprehensive and cautious.
“Now, masks are like their hard hats or gloves,” he said.Everyone carries and wears a mask as a matter of course, Trierweiler said, and face-to-face meetings are a thing of the past. IA has actually not held a face-to-face meeting since the end of January. Trierweiler added that he sees people paying close attention to their own health, showing concern for their colleagues, and staying home if they have symptoms even of a cold, so they don’t bring it to work.“I’ve been very proud of our staff in doing what they can to prevent the spread (of the virus),” he said.
While understanding that across the United States people are anxious to get out and socialize, Manson issued a memo to employees stating that they are lucky to be working, to be sure to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer, to work from home if not comfortable going in to work, and that by doing so they are protecting both themselves and their colleagues and family. Schorr related an incident where several employees caught the virus in Jacksonville when bars reopened. Their cases were mild, so it was no more than an inconvenience for them, but they were required to isolate and not come back to work until they tested negative.
Simonelli related an incident where an employee tested positive after vacationing with friends. The diagnosis came after the employee had been in contact with 22 other employees for three days. Because of this incident, GLDD stressed the importance of offsite behavior and prohibited employees from going inside restaurants and bars, restricting themselves to outside seating.
How are you setting up to play the long game?
Manson is continuing temperature checks going on- and off-site. They will keep up the CDC, WHO and OSHA protocols, in addition to any new procedures to keep people safe, including prohibiting visiting and extraneous personnel from going onto the vessels. Inspections are all done remotely, and all who do come aboard vessels are subject to the full protocol. Outside workers are checked before coming near the vessel.
“All have older family members and a much broader responsibility than their own personal safety,” Schorr said.
Simonelli said that GLDD’s plan is similar to Manson’s: Testing crews before leaving home and testing again at the vessel.
“We have had false positives and are learning from each event,” he said.
Simonelli said he has become a believer in remote work. The GLDD office had 160 people, now reduced to 50. The traffic patterns and facilities in the office have their own protocols.
“I’m not sure when we’re going to open the office,” he said.
“We’re just continuing to evolve, to admit when a previous plan didn’t work, and know that failure can only come if we don’t keep trying, Binsfeld said. “This will be here a while. It’s important to not get fatigued.”Final take-away statements from the panelists:
“Be sure to avoid complacency.”
“We’re all in this together.”
“Anything we can do to help other companies, we are available. This goes above and beyond individual cases,” which was echoed by all the panelists.
Materials from the webinar can be viewed at https://westerndredging.org/index.php/safety-comm-panel.
The next WEDA webinar, on reservoir sediment dredging, is scheduled for Friday, August 14, from 1-2 p.m. EST. Information, including names of the six panelists and schedule of topics to be addressed, is posted on the WEDA website: www.westerndredging.org.
Caption for photo: COVID-19 safety panelists participating in the July 27 webinar were, top, from left: Margaret Davis, David Simonelli and Dana Trieweiler; bottom, from left: Henry Schorr and Mike Binsfeld.