DJC Op-Ed: A Day in the Life of a Carpenter … In the Midst of COVID-19

Mike Salsgiver

By: Mike Salsgiver,
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter

This article was published by the DJC on May 19 in Buildings, Bridges and Roads, and can be viewed here (subscription required).

In my previous columns I’ve spoken in first person, in my own words about issues of importance to the commercial construction industry. This month I decided to try something different, and write from the perspective of a fictional construction worker. Given the very personal toll the past two months have had on each and every one of us, I thought it would be interesting for readers to get a sense of how this pandemic has changed the way builders do their jobs. This column is a salute to those men and women.

Hi, my name is Dave and I am a carpenter. I have been one since I can remember. Let me tell you about a typical day for me.

It’s 4:30 a.m. when I wake up. I didn’t used to wake this early, though. My mornings started earlier two months ago when all the COVID-19 stuff started happening. I was recently transferred to the hospital project my company is working on clear across town – hence the new early morning routine.

Before COVID, I used to have some time when I first woke up to sit down and eat some oatmeal, do a light cardio workout, and drink a couple cups of coffee before heading out. My foreman would pick me up in the company crew cab F-250; ride share is one of the perks of working for a big outfit. All that has stopped now with COVID. I have to drive myself to work since we can’t all pack into the trucks like we used to.

The superintendent of the jobsite I am on said he would make special accommodations for fuel reimbursements and that we would see this on our paychecks, but that money has not hit my account yet. So I drive an hour to the jobsite each morning, and an hour from it each evening. Traffic isn’t that bad though. It used to be pretty terrible; not anymore. I wonder what all those former commuters are doing for work and money now? When I look at all those free lanes, I am sure thankful I still have a job.

I start a slow walk to the front gate of the hospital entrance, putting on my high-vis vest, safety glasses, gloves, and one of the nice masks my mom made for me. Through glasses made foggy by a combination of the cool morning air and the hot air trapped by the mask, I can see the typical safety posters strung up along the fence: “PPE required,” “Danger: Authorized Personnel Only,” and a big 10-foot-long one that says “Be Smart, Stay 6 Feet Apart.”

There are only a couple of guys waiting in line to get in, all standing on X’s spray-painted on the ground six feet apart all the way down the sidewalk and around the block. It is classified as a choke point where folks congregate, and it’s “closely monitored” by the site brass. The line to get in moves slowly; it usually takes way longer to get into the site than planned. All hands must stop at the guard shack to get a temporal thermometer scan from the guy at the gate. He also keeps a daily attendance log of all workers and visitors to know who we might have come into contact with.

Once past the gate we have our morning meetings, where we keep a solid six-foot distance between each other, don’t share pens to sign in, and keep our meeting numbers under 10 people. Our crew of five hits a quick stretch and flex, and then a toolbox training topic. Then we have our normal job safety analysis, where we talk about how we are going to keep from getting hurt and get the job done with the new COVID-19 job practices.

We have a superintendent on the hospital job who is the COVID-19 supervisor. He pulls double duty and is always there to check up on us and make sure we follow the COVID safety plan. He is our go-to guy for solutions to problems in this new world. He helps us find ways to modify the work, put up barriers between us, or use personal protective equipment that can help keep us from spreading germs to each other. After we check in with him, we go wipe down all our common shared drills, grinders and other tools before using them.

In the morning we strip out 80-pound Doka post shoring props from floors that have cured out, load them onto carts, and swing them up to the top floors where they can be used again. We take lunch and breaks in staggered shifts to avoid large concentrations of people. While eating lunch, I can smell the cleaners used on the folding tables. My company hired a bunch of folks to wipe down the common areas after we get done eating; they do a really good job.

One good thing I’ll say about the COVID jobsite practices is that our sanitation stuff is light-years better than it used to be. Prior to COVID it was kind of hard to find a place to wash our hands before eating. Now we have all kinds of handwashing stations – some my crew and I made ourselves. We wash our hands a lot throughout the day, and there are tissues, wipes, sanitizers and other materials we use to keep ourselves, our tools and our equipment clean. We work the remainder of the shift stripping plywood filler formwork from the intermediate floors, meet for an end-of-day debrief about what went well and what we can change up tomorrow.

So, that is a day for me, my crew, my job team and my company. The COVID protocols are inconvenient for me and my team, but we have proved we are able to stay almost as productive as we were before, and we are able to stay safe. Our crews have already had processes in place for managing risks way more dangerous COVID-19. Other than wearing masks that fog up my safety glasses, it’s really not that big of a deal for us.

I drive my truck back home through the very light traffic, head into the house, eat a good dinner, call it a day, and then prep to do it all again tomorrow.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or mikes@agc-oregon.org.

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