Conducting Site Visits in a Public Health Crisis
A public health crisis can upend the way design professionals practice many of their responsibilities. You may need to rethink how to safely perform your work while still meeting the obligations of your professional services agreements.
In a public health crisis, many states and provinces might issue far-reaching orders that shut down construction projects except for those deemed “essential”—a term that might include everything from critical infrastructure and hospitals to low-income senior housing. Some municipalities might issue even more stringent restrictions.
In the midst of these many regulations, you may have to shift your strategies for conducting site visits, depending on whether the project is deemed essential, and taking into account your ability to staff a project with employees, travel restrictions, proper hygiene, social distancing and other precautions being implemented at the jobsite.
Adequate personal protective equipment and training
Regardless of whether a project is deemed essential or a shelter-in-place order has been lifted, design firms need to develop guidelines for keeping their employees healthy and safe. Before visiting the site, obtain any written criteria for site visits from the contractor as well as the most recent version of the project safety plan. If your guidelines are in general agreement with the contractor’s criteria, then the site visit can proceed. However, if the contractor isn’t enforcing its own site visit criteria or the procedures are inconsistent or lacking, then give your employee the option of refusing to visit until enforcement is in place or defects in the project safety plan are remedied; make sure to communicate this to your client.
Here are some recommendations on healthy and safe practices:
- Supply employees involved in site visits with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), which may include, depending on the nature of the crisis, not only the customary hard hat, eye protection, gloves and boots, but also a face mask. Another PPE option is an extra layer of clothing to be removed and bagged following the visit. Employees conducting site visits must comply with all safety requirements in the contractor’s project safety plan, and use that plan as a starting point for the level of protection to use.
- Train employees in the proper use of PPE, how to correctly social distance— again, if appropriate to the crisis—and how to recognize obvious symptoms of illness, whether in themselves or other workers at the site.
- Implement a travel policy that defines which trips are essential and for which employees. You may need to instruct employees to travel to and from jobsites in separate vehicles and, if it’s recommended, to refrain from shaking hands with anyone.
Non-essential projects with ongoing construction
Your firm may be asked to provide construction observation services on active projects that are either nonessential (as defined by your firm and/or government authorities) or fall within a gray area. If you feel the conditions are unsafe or illegal or might place your firm in ethical peril, you should refrain from going. In other situations, your firm may want to help your client but may not know how to determine if a project is essential. Consider sending your client an email asking whether the project is deemed essential and put the burden on them to respond. Also try to obtain a letter or email in advance from your client that documents the client’s request for your firm’s site visits and travel.
Inform your client that your services will be contingent upon your ability to provide a safe working environment for your employees, and that if you’re ordered to leave the jobsite by any law enforcement or governmental authority, you’ll comply immediately. Consider amending your professional services agreement to reflect the fact that you may not be able to provide services as originally intended due to the crisis.
If you believe the project is non-essential and you’re unable to properly staff the site visit, but the client is demanding you do so anyway, let your client know your position both verbally and in writing. Increasing communication under these conditions is a key factor in managing client expectations and achieving a positive outcome. To the extent that you have any contractual protections, like a force majeure clause or a changed conditions clause, reference those sections when writing your client, as well as any applicable governmental orders that detail which construction is considered essential. You don’t need to necessarily terminate your agreement; you just need an extension of time and need your client to understand your concern for the health and safety of your employees and those working on the jobsite.
Documenting unsafe conditions
If an employee observes workers failing to follow proper safety protocols, either by violating the project safety plan or governmental health advice, the employee should first take prompt action to protect themselves by leaving the immediate area. The employee should objectively note in writing what was observed and refrain from offering any remedy, such as telling the contractor how its employees should practice social distancing or wear face masks.
The contractor should be made aware of the issue, and the unsafe practice should be documented in writing to the client along with reference to the design firm’s contract that disclaims jobsite safety and construction means and methods.
If the failure of a party to properly use PPE or to follow established safety protocols creates an unsafe condition that prevents the design professional from returning to the project to conduct site visits, then this, too, should be discussed first with the client and then put in writing. If the unsafe condition will impact the critical path or your scheduled services, inform the client and, if necessary, seek a written contract amendment allowing more time to complete your services. Let your client know whether there will be additional project costs or delays if you’re unable to observe an element of work that is subsequently covered by additional construction. If your contract offers any protections, like a changed condition or a delays clause, cite those as well.