Learning on the Fly: Making Wellness a Standard
By: Grace Austin
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed life as we know it—including fundamentally altering how the construction industry operates. Companies and employees adapted and evolved during the pandemic to keep up with ever-shifting health and safety protocols. Bozzuto Construction Company took a dynamic approach and has maintained many of the new protocols nearly three years into the pandemic.
“All of those guidelines, things we instituted, were twofold,” says Kelly Cantley, senior vice president of Bozzuto Construction. “One, to keep the workers safe—between face coverings, social distancing. The second was to try and keep construction operations up and going. Because of housing, we are considered essential.”
Founded in 1988, Greenbelt, Maryland–headquartered Bozzuto is a real-estate company with management, development, real-estate holdings and construction units. Its building operations are centered largely around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, but also extend to states such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
“I think at the very beginning of the pandemic, we were all very confused on what was going on, because none of us had ever dealt with anything of this nature, and I think that’s across the world,” says Nathan Slavin, Bozzuto’s director of safety. “As we saw it evolve, we started learning about it.”
IN THE BEGINNING
At the start of the pandemic, Slavin says Bozzuto followed news reports, press releases and conferences, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources, sometimes hour by hour as more information emerged. “Once we progressed further and fully understood what was going on, it was very important for us to understand, how do we protect our people?” Slavin says. “And obviously, once they said we were essential, how do we continue to operate within the guidelines set forth from the CDC and our local jurisdictions?”
Communication was key—not just within Bozzuto but across the industry. “I was calling my competitors and their COOs,” Cantley says, “and asking them, ‘Hey, let’s exchange some best practices. We just found this tool. How are you tracking if you need to shut down your project?’ It was really powerful to see everyone come together and develop the best way for the industry to proceed.”
Early on in the pandemic, Bozzuto put together an extensive continuity plan, developed through discussions and webinars in collaboration with peer groups, industry contacts and the National Safety Council. Slavin says the continuity plan is something he’s most proud of. “We were learning on the fly,” he says, “as rules, regulations and best practices all evolved.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, that meant cleaning—one of the first methods that experts said could protect people from the virus. “We had to raise our standards to make sure that any facility that was being shared, like bathrooms or stairwells, is cleaned on a daily basis,” Slavin says. (Editor’s note: For more on onsite sanitation, see the Jan/Feb 2023 article “Keep It Clean”)
Bozzuto also employed nurses who conducted temperature screenings on every project, and eventually invested in equipment that would allow workers to take their own temperature. Projects even underwent fumigation to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the air. Other guidelines, such as maintaining 15-foot distances between people, were difficult in an industry like construction, where certain operations mean working side by side.
“We looked at everything, like when the lunch truck comes onsite—even though it’s outside our gate, we still want to make sure the workers are protected,” Slavin says. “So, we had to have signs on where people can stand, the face coverings that everybody had to utilize. We even had to change how we did business.” Those changes also included subcontractor work. While normally subcontractors would work on different aspects of a project in the same area, now they needed to confine themselves to different zones or quadrants on the worksite so they could remain isolated. But it wasn’t always possible to control every factor, such as workers who drive together to a jobsite, increasing the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19. “It was an evolution through this whole process,” Slavin says.
Further along in the pandemic, more issues sprang up, including trying to keep up with oft-changing rules and regulations. Some local jurisdictions had stricter guidance than existed at the state level, according to Slavin. That meant adapting quickly to make sure that everyone was protected and rules were followed.
Now, looking forward, Bozzuto has instituted lessons learned through trial and error during the pandemic. One of those was a necessary use of technology that’s made operations more efficient now. “A lot of our jurisdictions weren’t able to do in-person inspections,” Cantley says. “So, we rotated over to using our iPhone and doing live video calls where we could actually record them. Interestingly enough, the inspectors aren’t driving all over the place; they’re more efficient with their time. And we’re able to record it and assess something if we missed it live.
The pandemic has also led the company to greater emphasize total human health, including a more detailed health plan and a larger focus on mental health. (Editor’s note: For more on mental health, see the Jan/Feb 2023 “Workforce” article or the Sept/Oct 2022 article, “We Need to Talk.”) “In certain industries, such as construction, you weren’t allowed to talk about feelings. It was an old-school mentality,” Slavin says. “The pandemic opened up a door where people want to talk about mental health that never did before, and it’s a great opportunity to look at, not just for construction but across the board.”
Slavin says that, for Bozzuto, it’s not just about caring for its people but also how mental-health challenges affect the bottom line, pointing to turnover that costs thousands of dollars per employee each year. Now, the company is focused on educating employees about mental-health resources through programs like toolbox talks.
“We’re in a tough industry,” Slavin says. “You can be tough as nails and still be able to talk about your mental health to make yourself a better person. This is no different than where things were at the early part of the pandemic. When we learn more information, we adapt.”