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    • Protect the environment. Think before you print.

Contractors building alternative care sites should weigh these factors

May 12, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has created demand for alternative care sites. Contractors should carefully evaluate risks and responsibilities with these projects.

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Contractors and designers aren’t prescribing medicines, but many of them are playing vital roles in helping people get the care they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contractors’ capabilities are often essential to the safe, swift and successful conversion of buildings such as the Javits Center in New York City for use as alternative care sites — or what the Army Corps of Engineers calls “surge sites” —  to handle patient overflow from overwhelmed hospitals.

Participating in projects to retrofit existing buildings or other facilities for medical care presents unique challenges for contractors, said Steve Reinoehl, Assistant Vice President for Zurich Risk Engineering’s Construction team in the East region. Contractors in many states have shown they’re ready and willing to meet the challenges if it means helping in the COVID-19 fight.

“We have several customers engaged in working on alternative care sites,” Reinoehl said. “Given the boundaries associated with these projects, and their fast-track nature, we wanted to give contractors some guidance in their pursuit of these jobs.”

No matter how eager contractors are to help, they should give due diligence to contract language and parameters for projects related to a disaster, whether a health crisis or a severe weather event. Sometimes, projects related to emergencies can expose contractors to atypical risks.

Case in point: After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a contractor furnished, installed and maintained new mobile trailer units to be used as temporary housing for people whose homes were destroyed. The trailer inhabitants stayed in them longer than expected. Thousands of lawsuits were filed due to formaldehyde off-gassing from materials used to fabricate the trailers.

That example is not intended to discourage contractors from lending their expertise and resources in times of need. But if you’re a contractor, steps such as the following can help you participate in alternative care site projects while protecting the business you’ve built.  

  • Have contracts carefully reviewed by an attorney familiar with contract law, one who can identify and explain any immunity provisions under federal or state law that may or may not exempt you from certain liabilities and warrantees.
  • If it is a fast-track project, consider whether you are experienced and equipped to manage tasks simultaneously that normally might be performed sequentially. Also explore how involved the owner or government agency will be in construction management. Ensure that verbal directives and changes will be confirmed in writing and signed off by official representatives of the contracting parties.
  • Grasp whether the project is to be completed in phases, where some sections could be deemed complete and available for patients while work elsewhere remains in progress. And learn what controls will be in place during construction to prevent encroachment into work zones (accidental or intentional) by other personnel with the facility (e.g., convention center, hotel, arena personnel).
  • Verify the funding source and payment terms and guarantees. Also establish billing rates as well as a process for closely monitoring time and materials (T&M) work.

Contractors want and need to take steps to ensure the safety of their own crew and subcontractors during work on alternative care sites. They should make sure they’ve reviewed the most recent regulatory guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies and industry groups. These questions, among others, should be addressed:

  • Who will be responsible for COVID-19 testing of workers at the gate and how will it be conducted?
  • How will you maintain and monitor the six-foot social distance required for workers, and how will you promote non-sharing of tools and cleaning of lifts and other equipment?
  • Do you have sufficient supplies such as thermometers, masks, gloves and disinfecting supplies for the life of the project?
  • Will COVID-19 awareness training be part of the orientation process?
  • Will subcontractors be monitored for adherence to travel restrictions?

While COVID-19 makes this diligence especially relevant now, it is required of any fast-track construction project following a crisis, such as wildfires in California or floods in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.

“The construction community is in a unique position to respond to many needs of communities, and has done so again and again,” Reinoehl said. “But contractors also need to take into consideration risks to their business and make sure they are prepared on the front end and back end. This shouldn’t preclude anyone from responding; they just need to be smart in how they respond, so it’s a positive outcome for all.”

The Zurich RiskTopic on Alternative Care Sites is available for contractors to refer to anytime they’re considering a fast-track emergency project.