WEDA Webinar Focuses On Long-Term Strategies For COVID-19 Safety
Participants in the Western Dredging Association (WEDA) webinar “From Pandemic to Endemic: Sustaining A Safe Working Environment in the COVID Era” February 23 learned from panelists who are safety award winners.
Moderator Julie Hile, president of Hile Group Inc., and the WEDA Safety Commission chair, said the panelists were all representatives from companies who had won WEDA safety awards. They included Sheri Brenner, director, QHSE, J.E. McAmis; Armand Riehl, vice president, senior project manager, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company; Henry Schorr, P.E., vice president, Manson Construction Company; and Rebekah Troxell, director of HSE, Ballard Marine. Erin Jensen, performance consultant, Hile Group, Inc., facilitated the discussion.
Hile noted that although contracts have been steady thanks in part to dredge operators’ status as essential workers, some issues specific to the dredging industry have arisen as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued for more than two years.
Hile began by asking each panelist how COVID-19 has affected their organizational culture.
Schorr said that like many companies, Manson Construction Company initially allowed employees who could do so to work from home and stopped job-site visits to dredges unless absolutely necessary.
“We did everything we could to make sure they were isolated and in their bubbles,” he said.
As time went on, if a crew member tested positive while on board a dredge, the company made the decision to pull the entire crew off, isolate them, clean the vessel and put an entirely new crew on board.
“We had crews drive to the job site,” Schorr said. “We ended up having to pay them more to do so but we kept them out of the airports.”
Over time, he said, the industry has moved more toward an expectation of 100 percent vaccination for both East Coast and Gulf dredging, and Manson is mandating vaccine use in those sectors.
One of the ways J.E. McAmis tried to limit exposure as the pandemic wore on was by putting cameras in some remote locations so that management could log in and see what was going on.
“If we needed a large meeting, we did everything outside,” Brenner said.
She said company representatives were pleasantly surprised at the results of the rapid changes that had to be put into place and remain in place to ensure employee safety.
“We never saw any decrease in productivity,” she said. “We saw no increase in accidents, absolutely nothing.”
Riehl said the pandemic tested and ultimately helped Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Company (GLDD) to grow its safety culture. The company did notice a backslide in safety operations that caused increased incidents due to a lack of face time, particularly among younger employees who were newer to the organization. Since then, he said, GLDD has re-emphasized the importance of the health and safety of employees while also requiring testing both on-site and at-home. Now, he said, GLDD has put into place a 100 percent companywide vaccination mandate.
When asked about pandemic challenges, Schor said one incident hit his company hard early in the pandemic. A crew had been on board for about two weeks and came into a shipyard to do eight hours of repairs.
“Within four days the crew started to come down with COVID,” he said. “This minor repair really did it, and we didn’t expect it.”
The company housed the entire crew in a hotel and furnished them with food, sanitized the vessel three different times and brought in a new crew.
“One person ended up in the hospital three weeks and was out of work eight months as a result of it,” Schorr said. “That really reinforced that we needed to go above and beyond to take care of our people.”
Now, he said, crews use antigen tests when they are about to go to work. If they test positive, they isolate and do a PCR test to confirm positivity.
“The outbreaks we are seeing are one to two people with flu-like symptoms, and we’re able to isolate those people for a few days, and then they are able to go back home,” he said.
In an attempt to minimize exposure, Manson Construction Company has also spaced out crew changes to one-month intervals.
Brenner said good communication and rapport between supervisors and managers and their crews has continued to be key in fighting the virus. Employees needed to feel comfortable to call a supervisor and stay home for the day if they were not feeling well or if a child was ill. As time went on and employees began taking vacations, they also needed to communicate with supervisors and isolate for a time after they came back to work.
Hile said that before the pandemic it was common for an employee to show up to work despite a sore throat and a runny nose. “And now the opposite is true,” she said. “If you’ve got some symptoms, the sign of a really good professional is to protect others and not share those germs.”
Riehl pointed out that although it is part of the new routine, as the pandemic has continued far longer than initially projected, that has caused some issues.
“As we’re seeing these new variants, we are starting to see the fatigue of our employees of having to do all these extra things just to be able to work that they didn’t have to do previously,” he said.
When certain protocols are relaxed, it is difficult to reinstate them when new variants of concern come along, he said.
Attitudes Toward Vaccination, Testing
Hile then asked about crew attitudes toward vaccination and testing.
At first, Brenner said, crews talked about what they were willing to do and what they were not. That changed, she said, into an attitude of “What do I have to do to keep everybody safe and be able to come to work?” She compared it to crews being told if they don’t have their hard hat, they can’t work. They now know if they aren’t following the safety guidelines, they can’t work.
“The crews are very close-knit,” Brenner said, talking about how crew members know each others’ families. “They know if there is a child, especially if that child might have a medical condition that might be life-threatening [if exposed to the virus]. As you see how important it is and how it does impact everybody, then you get more understanding, and it gets more relatable.”
Ballard Marine has used anonymous employee surveys to gauge the approach the company should take to vaccination and testing, Troxell said. In both the spring and fall of 2021, the company sent the surveys out.
“They were really helpful to us to help determine what decisions would be best for the company,” she said. “If we couldn’t make a change the employees wanted, the surveys helped to tailor the messaging, explaining what the law says, etc. or where we needed to be more empathetic so teams wouldn’t feel slighted, disrespected or put upon.”
Schorr said one helpful procedure his company has put in place is instituting regular meetings between employees, project managers and administrators, whether that was through video-conferencing or otherwise.
“As a result of that, our crews were very receptive to do what they had to do to keep us working and keep them working and keep their families safe,” he said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic becomes more endemic, Hile asked about companies’ plans to move forward.
Right now, Schorr said, Manson tests all employees before they walk onto a job site.
“I don’t see that changing near-term,” he said. “For right now we’re maintaining that and testing people as they come through the job sites.”
The company might at some point move away from a vaccine mandate, but not for now, he said. “Six months from now it might be totally different.”
Brenner said employees now expect safety procedures as part of the “new normal” and have had had little pushback. “Most people have heard of if not directly involved with a family member who has been affected or lost their life,” she said.
Troxell said if there is a “silver lining” to all the new procedures COVID-19 forced, it may be in increased employee comfort with using technology.
“Ballard will keep using remote meetings where appropriate,” she said. “It can save so much time and travel and unnecessary time and expense in the right applications.”
Additionally, she said, Ballard plans to continue changes in wording of contracts that address the pandemic and government response to the pandemic. The company has not made a decision yet about continuing the use of masks when employees are sick, but may continue more frequent daily disinfections of high-touch surfaces.
“We cannot wait to drop social distancing,” she said, noting that has put restrictions on large team celebrations and planning and gathering.