Lessons for working in construction during a pandemic
© Greg Nash

Lessons for working in construction during a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we work. As the months go by, we’re all starting to settle into the new normal of our day to day routines. In many industries, this has meant a shift to working from home, days filled with remote meetings and virtual interactions. Here at the Architect of the Capitol, our new work style also looks a little different.

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is a federal agency responsible for maintaining the landmark buildings, monuments, art and grounds of the Capitol campus. Our mission is to serve Congress and the Supreme Court, preserve America's Capitol and inspire memorable experiences.

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The AOC accomplishes its mission with a dedicated workforce made up of the most qualified people — both public servants and private contractors. Employees and contractors not required onsite have been afforded 100 percent telework opportunities during the pandemic. However, much of our work, including our construction projects, requires boots on the ground and cannot be done from a distance.

Safety has long been one of the AOC’s core values, a value that is particularly essential in construction. At the onset of the pandemic, the AOC adjusted quickly to these new conditions by mandating safety guidelines that were recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The main focus was to keep people working safely while implementing additional measures such as cleaning, sanitizing, using face coverings and social distancing measures — all supervised and spot checked by our new COVID-19 monitors in construction areas.

As CDC guidelines evolved, the AOC further adapted. We provided daily communications to quickly establish processes and procedures and push them across the organization. Contractors were required to screen workers to prevent cases on sites, remove sick workers, immediately report potential COVID cases to the AOC and complete contact traces.

We implemented weekly fogging, or misting disinfectant, in high-traffic work areas. We also adjusted work schedules so that different trades are not working in close proximity to each other, reducing the risk of exposure. As we learned on the job and received new guidance from medical experts, we have continually strengthened our safety procedures.

With these preventive measures in place, the AOC is experiencing a steadily and increasingly lower transmission rate. When we do have an employee test positive, we’ve taken steps to protect those who work with that person and prevent further spread while keeping our vital projects on schedule. Our tracking process incorporates CDC guidance, providing timelines for quarantine and safe return for anyone who tests positive and for anyone who has come in contact with that person.

Projects yet to be awarded or solicited will need to be reevaluated for the ongoing impacts of COVID-19. Future project planning will require continual reassessment of safety measures.

The lasting changes of COVID-19 across the globe are unknown. While the future of construction is unclear, finding ways to keep our employees safe and the work going is paramount. In more than 225 years of service to Congress and the Supreme Court, the Architect of the Capitol has weathered numerous fires, wars and even earthquakes. Each and every time, our agency has adapted. Now, in the face of a global pandemic, we are continuing to build upon the lessons learned in past crises to ensure the health and welfare of our workforce.

J. Brett Blanton  serves as the 12th Architect of the Capitol, where he is responsible for facilities maintenance and operation of the historic U.S. Capitol Building, the care and improvement of more than 570 acres of grounds and the operation and maintenance of 18.4 million square feet of buildings.