There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global economy. The construction industry has not been immune to the issues and has certainly experienced its range of challenges, including project delays, supply chain bottlenecks and complete site shutdowns. The closure of many sites, along with the drop in demand for contractors’ services, resulted in a loss of nearly a million jobs in April alone, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As stay-at-home orders were put into place, the national government mandated the closing of all non-essential business. The construction industry was deemed essential. However, it has been left up to each state to determine to what extent they would follow the national guidelines.
So, how has this affected the current construction climate and what does it mean moving forward? To find out, we sat down with Kirk Biddle, Stealth’s Vice President of Mobile Sales and Todd Brinkley, Director of Monitoring for Stealth. Brian Polis, Director Health, Safety & Environment for Graham Construction, one of the largest contractors in North America, also provided an inside look as to what his company has been seeing at their sites.
How has COVID-19 impacted Stealth’s construction customers?
Kirk: At the onset of the pandemic in early March, and as sites thought they were going to shut down, many added additional cameras to their construction sites. They were seeking coverage to reduce areas where potential thieves may go undetected. Additionally, a significant number of customers increased their monitoring service hours to extend to 24/7 coverage as their sites had few, if any employees on them.
What was going on at sites that remained open?
Kirk: For sites to remain open, they are required to comply with stricter health and safety regulations. That means more sanitation stations installed throughout the sites. As an example, Washington state requires there be warm water wash stations located throughout the project site.
We also witnessed several subcontractors just not showing up to work. I think that can be attributed to health concerns. To comply with social distancing guidelines, there are fewer workers on a site at one time. This has led to an increase in project delays.
In general, we are seeing higher stress/anxiety and lower production as workers/staff deal with new requirements/protocols and COVID-19. Additionally, because so much focus is being dedicated to COVID-19, we are noticing other hazards being overlooked. This coupled with the overall distraction factor are triggering increased incidents.
What types of security issues have you seen?
Kirk: Crime and vandalism have spiked since the onset of COVID-19. We are seeing more crimes of opportunity as well as those that are well planned out, including thieves using lookouts. Daytime theft on construction sites which are shut down or have few, if any workers on them, is frequent. Night-time vandalism has increased with kids being out of school, as well.
We have also helped many of our customers detect and manage unauthorized workers accessing the site. In some cities that are shut down, subcontractors are coming back to complete work so they can get paid.
Todd: To be honest, we are seeing many of the same types of crime we were before the pandemic, we’re just seeing more of it. That includes a high number of thefts. In fact, we set a record for the highest number of arrests ever in the construction vertical in April. While these were across many cities, 10 of those were in Seattle alone, a place with a high population of vagrants.
In addition to criminal trespass, we are seeing a fair number of smaller items being stolen as opposed to larger equipment. Construction sites are an easy target. Fences are not a true barrier for determined trespassers. With fewer people on the sites, there are fewer witnesses and greater opportunities.
Criminals are trying to blend in more. They are outfitting themselves in PPE to look like the other workers on the site.
The increase in crime has not just been on construction sites. As unemployment has increased, people have become more desperate. Crime and arrests are up in our multi-family and retail verticals as well.
Here’s an interesting fact: We’ve seen a lot of people going into the porta potties to use the facilities. They are also stealing the hand sanitizers, which have become a hot commodity lately. Sites can get fined if they don’t have it readily available. And any time there are people on a site, liability becomes an issue. Often our monitoring job on a construction site is less about theft and more about helping with site management.
Speaking of monitoring, what has Stealth done to maintain business continuity?
Kirk: We already offer one of the most robust security solutions in the industry. To comply with government-mandated social distancing and to reduce the risk of monitoring center shutdowns impacting services, we established redundant monitoring facilities in each of the three countries which are home to our monitoring centers. This included acquiring all new equipment and nearly 100 additional staff members to operate these three centers. The monitoring centers run in isolation from one-another, reducing risk of staff cross-contamination between monitoring facilities.
Are parts of the country experiencing more activity than others?
Todd: We are witnessing more activity in the Western U.S. and the larger cities across Canada and the U.S. Places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. Those areas also have a high number of homeless people.
What are the concerns as sites begin to reopen?
Brian: A big challenge will be to maintain increased health and hygiene protocols, as well as increased screening/tracking protocols. People are anxious and on “high alert” for things they feel could get them sick. We have experienced an increase in “complaints/concerns” from labor/workers, as well as the public as it relates to social distancing and other COVID-19 related issues. Training and communicating to the diverse workforce are the new norms but big challenges, nonetheless.
How do you think this will affect the industry moving forward?
Kirk: I believe things will be different for the next year. There is still uncertainty around a resurgence of COVID-19. There will likely still be a greater separation of trades and workers on the sites to create less congestion. That will likely lead to longer project durations and demand better project management and oversight.
There will be a greater focus on health and safety. That means creating emergency response and site shutdown plans, as well as performing temperature and health checks for employees and trades entering the sites. I also believe there will be more break times for workers. Especially in summer months. If masks are still a requirement, that could impact worker efficiency as the heat rises – N95 masks are generally uncomfortable and make it more difficult to breathe. The work done by a construction laborer will be harder to perform with a mask on.
Brian: COVID-19 is an ever-evolving problem right now and will continue to be until a treatment or vaccine is developed. We anticipate dealing with COVID-related issues for the balance of 2020 and into the second quarter of 2021 at a minimum unless a major scientific breakthrough occurs sooner.
COVID has and will continue to force business/industry to rapidly evolve and problem-solve in ways we have not been willing (or have been resistant) to do in the past. COVID has proven change is possible, rapid, and effective, which contradicts some of our previous thoughts.
For more information about proactive security solutions that can help safeguard your construction site, contact us.