A worker submits to a daily temperature check before entering the Mexico City construction site. Photo by Jared Conrad

By Vincent J. Abramo   

Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges for preventing novel coronavirus transmission and infection at Bureau Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) project sites. These projects employ large numbers of workers who perform construction tasks close to each other, making it difficult to both socially distance and remain efficient and productive. At the onset of COVID-19, OBO construction contractors worked on more than 60 large and small projects in Latin America, Africa, East Asia Pacific, and the Middle East. Most of these projects were shut down, either by OBO or by the host government health ministries. Thousands of OBO construction workers, before border closings, returned to their home countries or remained restricted to quarters in their construction “man-camps.” To enable these projects to re-start, OBO adapted construction project management strategies to ensure all workers’ safety and health—not just from physical hazards, but from infectious diseases, as well. 

Masked construction workers line up, 6 feet apart, for daily temperature checks before entering the construction site. Photo by Jared Conrad
Masked construction workers line up, 6 feet apart, for daily temperature checks before entering the construction site. Photo by Jared Conrad

While recognizing the unprecedented coronavirus threat in the work environment, OBO leadership remained determined to advance the Department of State’s mission of building new embassy and consulate compounds safely and efficiently. As construction project schedules began to experience delays, the urgency to re-open suspended project sites intensified. To keep projects on schedule and protect the workforce from COVID -19 exposure, OBO began to implement Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety and health protocols on project sites. OBO asked contractors to submit COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plans (PRP) for review and approval by OBO’s newly formed COVID-19 Safety and Health Contingency Plan Working Group. OBO asked contractors to include in their PRP’s COVID-19 screening, detection response, and mitigation protocols recommended in CDC guidelines. Contractors also had to ensure the application of CDC recommendations that directed workers to adhere to strict rules requiring the wearing of face coverings, the maintenance of social distancing, and the practicing of self-monitoring and sound personal hygiene. OBO further directed contractors to ensure ample presence of medical personnel with the training and clinical expertise to organize, implement, and enforce these CDC-recommended prevention and response guidelines. 

A medical staff member administers a temperature check of an employee near the new embassy compound entrance in New Delhi. Photo by Jorge Vazquez
A medical staff member administers a temperature check of an employee near the new embassy compound entrance in New Delhi. Photo by Jorge Vazquez

Contractors hired medical personnel to organize onsite COVID-19 Medical Units (CMUs), with authority and responsibility to implement their PRPs. CMUs integrated into the existing first aid stations and health clinics that are routinely established at all OBO project sites to provide urgent medical care in the event of worker injury. Contractors recruited registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, and emergency medical technicians from the local medical community to serve in these units. For projects with large temporary labor camps, OBO instigated a new requirement to post a licensed physician on-site every day to support CMUs in the event coronavirus transmission unexpectedly spiked.  

CMUs were also required to engage local health officials, ensuring that OBO construction projects comply with host country health regulations. CMUs monitored local public health advisories and ensured that projects maintain up-to-date lists of healthcare facilities and points of contact at hospitals, clinics, and emergency medical services that were actively responding to COVID-19. CMUs have greatly enhanced OBO’s ability to prepare for and respond to coronavirus outbreaks, thus enabling the resumption and continuation of major construction projects all over the world. 

As a result of these initiatives, OBO has established a new rhythm at construction sites. Each day, all personnel arriving at the project site receive a temperature check. During screening at the site gate, CMU staff pose questions to each worker: “Do you feel feverish, have shortness of breath, body chills, aches, sore throat, dry cough, loss of taste?” Workers identified as symptomatic are advised on the steps they must take as part of a testing and quarantine process to re-enter the project site. CMUs allow workers without symptoms to enter and reminds them of all safety protocols in force. Regardless of other symptoms, the CMU evaluates and appropriately advises workers with temperature readings exceeding 100.4 F / 38 C.   

Handwashing stations are set up at the entry to the construction site, encouraging good health and hygiene in Mexico City. Photo by Jared Conrad
Handwashing stations are set up at the entry to the construction site, encouraging good health and hygiene in Mexico City. Photo by Jared Conrad

All personnel, work crews, supervisors, and site foremen at the projects have been directed to maintain, without interfering with the work’s progress, a 6-foot (2-meter) distancing rule. Workers are required to wear a face covering—preferably a mask—at all times, while working in close quarters. Personal protective equipment (e.g., face masks or face shields, gloves, and eye protection) are provided to all personnel per CDC recommendations. 

In addition to the efforts of medical personnel to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, contractors are required to provide, through the CMU, COVID-19 awareness training for all workers. Training stresses the importance of how workers themselves can personally practice prevention and control measures—not just to protect themselves, but to prevent spreading the infection to co-workers and others on-site. Workers are encouraged to always self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and report such symptoms to medical personnel whether on-site or at the temporary labor camp.  

OBO also requires contractors to provide competent, well-trained cleaning crews to thoroughly clean and disinfect all areas of the project site each day. Dining areas, management and engineering staff offices, workstations, toilets, common areas, and visitor entries and exits are thoroughly cleaned each day. Additionally, tools, equipment, and machinery are wiped down once per day before use. All disinfectants, cleaning agents, and bleach solutions must meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval for COVID-19 prevention. 

The construction site break area, where the workers take their lunch breaks, is arranged in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Photo by Jared Conrad
The construction site break area, where the workers take their lunch breaks, is arranged in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Photo by Jared Conrad

OBO’s pro-active COVID-19 prevention response program, based on CDC recommendations and guidelines, has so far successfully ensured the safety of construction workers and project teams around the world. While several large project sites have experienced a spike in coronavirus infections this fall, the COVID-19 prevention response and mitigation program will continue to respond and mitigate coronavirus cases, as all new contract awards for 2021 will include requirements that contractors establish the capability to address viral outbreaks. This measure will improve OBO’s ability to safely and reliably deliver new embassy and consulate buildings—and hence support the Department’s advancement of U.S. foreign policy priorities—over the next several years.   

Vincent J. Abramo is the construction safety occupational health manager in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Office of Construction Management.