Builders adapt to safety guidelines during pandemic

Home construction continues in Pacific Highlands Ranch.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated housing construction as an “essential infrastructure business,” allowing construction to continue in places under stay-at-home orders such as the state of California during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order includes construction in the list of essential critical workers, however, to some, construction is a public safety concern as the virus could spread on the job site. The states of Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington along with cities such as Boston and San Francisco have shut down almost all construction projects. Austin, Texas initially banned all construction activity but, after a week, allowed commercial and residential building to continue.

One Rancho Santa Fe resident questioned the construction continuing on homes and driveways in his neighborhood after he claimed to witness workers were not keeping six feet of physical distancing on the site or following proper hygiene measures, reporting his concerns to the county, sheriff’s department and the Rancho Santa Fe Association.

“This is work on affluent custom homes, nothing essential to our infrastructure,” wrote the resident in a message to the Rancho Santa Fe Association asking that they be more proactive in its response to protect all citizens. “We are confident that history will not treat kindly those who passively stand-by while affluent residents engage in prohibited, dangerous activity in order to build a house or re-do a driveway -- all while our residents in the county generally and in the Ranch specifically -- are critically sick and may in fact die.”

While the Association does not have the authority or infrastructure to enforce government-mandated health orders, as a safety precaution, the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol and the Association’s building department staff distributed flyers that emphasize social distancing and good hygiene practices to construction crews, project managers and homeowners with construction projects on their properties in Rancho Santa Fe.

“While we cannot enforce the governor’s mandate, we can certainly promote safe practices in our community among our residents as well as people working in the Ranch,” said RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen.

San Diego County’s public health orders continue to evolve, as San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said last week: “We must everyday adapt to the latest information, we must adapt to the newest opportunity to protect one another.”

By April 7, all essential businesses that remained open were required to post their physical distancing and sanitation protocols and policies—a template can be found on the county’s website. Fletcher said if entities are non-compliant, people can report violations utilizing 2-1-1 San Diego or submit via Enforcement, he said, will be at the discretion and availability of the law enforcement agency.

Rules posted on a San Diego construction site.

Last week, the Builders Industry Association (BIA) of San Diego County released its COVID-19 Job Site Safety Protocol, a document that represents a collaboration between Lennar Homes, Shea Homes, Pardee Homes, Toll Brothers, D.R. Horton, California West Communities, Baldwin & Sons, Pacific Coast Communities and H.G. Fenton Company.

The BIA recommended that all of San Diego’s building activity follow this safety protocol to promote and encourage best practices throughout the region in order to keep the public, local government partners and workforce safe and healthy.

“The industry employs over 900,000 individuals. The governor ordered most Californians to shelter at home. Our industry provides that shelter, needed now more than ever. If we, those 900,000, were not at work, our pre-existing challenges would merely exacerbate through the virus,” said Borre Winckel, president and CEO of BIA. “We do not take this exemption from the order for granted. The industry is grateful we are allowed to work. Hence, we insist that our activities are covered by the most stringent job site safety and health guidelines.”

The guidelines reflect input from the CDC, the state and the county’s health authorities and were crafted with the region’s leading builders. Recommendations include that workers on the job site do not share equipment or tools, they should stagger or alter the scheduling of trade partners to minimize the number of teams working at a house at a time, instruct all workers to regularly wash hands or use sanitizers, and require six-foot distancing from one another including during work breaks.

Winckel said the protocol has been shared throughout the industry, to trades, subcontractors, vendors and suppliers. It was also provided to all local jurisdictions with a request for regular feedback— the protocol is subject to revision as new requirements may come about from the health authorities.

“We take these concerns seriously, because one bad industry actor can ruin it for all,” Winckel said.

On Thursday, April 16, the National Association of Homebuilders is urging members, and all residential construction companies, to halt work for at least 10 minutes for a COVID-19 Job Site Safety Stand Down to educate workers on what they should do to keep themselves safe from coronavirus and to help “flatten the curve” for everyone. This will be the second Safety Stand Down event—on April 9, over 31,000 construction workers across the country participated.