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Construction Workers Adapt To COVID-19 Safety Precautions

File photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Construction workers like those on the job site of a new apartment building going up in the Central West End are taking new precautions to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jake Hamlet thinks about his wife’s health constantly these days. She has an autoimmune disease that targets the lungs, and she could be vulnerable to the coronavirus.

As a carpenter, Hamlet — like all employees in the construction industry — is considered essential. He works for a small general contracting company in St. Louis that does home renovations.

He could choose to stay home, but his wife, Tina, who works remotely, said they need the money. Hamlet wouldn’t be able to collect unemployment benefits, since he has the option to work.

So he continues to report to the job site but stays vigilant.

“I go to work, and I come home. Every once in a while I stop and get gas, but that’s about it,” he said.

Hamlet and his coworkers no longer share tools, and they wear work gloves and masks on the job, where residents aren’t currently living. When he returns home from work, he’s greeted by a sign on the door reminding him to wash his hands and disinfect the doorknob.

“When I get home, we do everything we can to keep whatever I might have picked up out of the scenario,” he said. 

Hamlet said he’s thankful that his coworkers are taking the new safety precautions seriously, and that they have enough hand sanitizer and masks to go around. But that’s not the case on every job site, where contractors are quickly adjusting to new safety standards during the pandemic.

New safety standards

This week, a construction project in a south St. Louis neighborhood came to a halt after a worker tested positive for COVID-19.

Len Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri, said it’s the first case he’s aware of that’s put a construction project in the St. Louis area on hold.

Toenjes, who coordinates with labor unions and construction companies across the state, said his biggest priority is to make sure construction workers stay safe as projects move ahead. That means communicating new safety standards — like the use of hand washing stations, respiratory protection and social distancing.

Two weeks ago, he helped set up a hotline that construction workers can call to anonymously report violations. Toenjes said his office has fielded a few calls a day since it launched.

“We can all say it from the corner suites, from the offices, as elected union officials or contractors, but we know that there still needs to be some way for self-policing,” he said. 

Toenjes said most callers so far have expressed concern over a lack of hand washing stations and groups of people working in close proximity. He said his office works with contractors on the specific job site and relevant unions to address concerns within 24 hours.

But, he said, social distancing may not be possible on every job — like when it comes to replacing guardrail on the highway or installing heavy materials. Toenjes said that makes using personal protective equipment even more important. He worries it may soon be difficult to get those supplies. 

“It’s not here yet, but I think we all need to be prepared for when that day comes,” he said.

On the worksites 

Justin Hennen is the foreman on a job for Streib Co., which does electrical work for apartments where residents are currently living. 

He said he worries every day that someone he works with could be exposed to the coronavirus.

“We go into a unit and there’s passports on the table, of course I’m going to get a guy that’s nervous. But if you instill blanket precautions, that makes everyone feel better,” he said. 

Hennen said that means wiping down surfaces and cleaning tools after every project, as well as transferring some workers to empty units to limit their exposure to other people.

He’s also been fielding concerns from tenants about ongoing work in their apartments. Some projects are being put on hold, he said, but it’s a matter of safety to finish others.

“You have to be prepared to not have any loose ends every day,” he said. “There’s no, ‘Well, we’ll come back to that tomorrow — tomorrow might not be there if someone gets diagnosed overnight or if someone starts feeling ill.”

Construction workers and residents can report safety concerns about job sites by calling the AGC of Missouri’s hotline: 314-781-2356, ext. 1050.

Follow Corinne on Twitter:@corinnesusan

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Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.