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Part II of webinar on “Underground Construction During the COVID Age” expands on measures taken during the pandemic

Jacobs’ 3RPORT Tunnel Project in Ft. Wayne, IN.

Jacobs’ 3RPORT Tunnel Project in Ft. Wayne, IN.

As a follow-up webinar to the first installment of this series, the Underground Construction Association (UCA), a Division of SME, held a second webinar titled “Underground Construction During the COVID Age, Part II” on July 1. Three major U.S. tunneling project managers and a professor from the Colorado School of Mines shared their stories as they continue adapting to the challenges raised by COVID-19.

The webinar was moderated by Erika Moonin, president of Moonin Associates, and Robert Goodfellow, president of Aldea Services Inc. The three speakers included Robert Goodfellow, Greg Colzani of Jacobs, John Bednarski of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Mike Mooney of the Colorado School of Mines (CSM).

Goodfellow, who is president of Aldea Services, a small consulting firm of about 35 staff based in Maryland, presented on the topic of design teams — working in the office and at home. After having all staff working remotely the past several months and beginning to transition back to the office, he said they treated it like any situation they’d come up against in various areas of their work, be it construction or otherwise. He told his staff, “If you’re not comfortable, don’t do it. We’ll find alternate ways of dealing with the issue.”

As he’s had some staff return to the office, Goodfellow explained that people’s personal circumstances and different situations are a big factor in deciding whether to return to the office and the terms of exactly what it will look like. He added, “We have about 30 percent who are very keen to get back to the office, particularly those with young children at home.”

Goodfellow also explained how they’ve focused on a mantra of awareness versus paranoia. And different from the usual approach of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) for one’s own safety, the mindset needs to be shifted to mask usage as a means of protecting others.

Touching on the topic of teams, Goodfellow discussed how managers at Aldea have been forced, out of necessity and the good of morale, to improve their communication to a distributed team that’s spread out and working remotely.

Looking ahead, Goodfellow said he doesn’t think business travel will ever be the same now that video conferencing has been proven as an effective substitute, at least for smaller and less significant meetings, although he clarified that site visits and certain in-person meetings will always be important and will return in the future when travel restrictions associated with the pandemic are lifted.

Next up, Colzani, global practices leader with Jacobs, shared the corporate perspective of how Jacobs has handled the challenges associated with COVID-19. With more than 55,000 employees, Colzani said the benefits of having a larger infrastructure and being able to steer staff to one centralized website for pandemic-related information streamlines communication and connectivity.

Jacobs’ chief executive officer, Steven Demetriou, holds weekly town hall meetings, and the human resources staff has organized virtual coffee breaks with smaller groups to provide the connection people miss when they’re not in an office setting. Longer term, Colzani added that Jacobs is looking at a potential reduction in hard office space as the shift to remote work has been accelerated and proven successful these past few months.

A local domestic inspector fills in overseas for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

A local domestic inspector fills in overseas for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

In fact, Jacobs is currently using COVID-19 as a BETA test for many of the tools and processes that will be required for the company to meet its goal of becoming a NetZero Corporation. As part of that, Jacobs has reduced travel (prepandemic), increased work schedule flexibility (less commuting) and diversified work opportunities through work-share programs, professional development and increased connectivity.

In terms of the construction management side of essential projects, Colzani said the decision has been generally left up to the contractor to determine if the project meets the definition of essential — as determined by governors’ shutdown orders — and the states’ policies vary.

Two of Jacobs’ current projects discussed were the 3PORT Project in Fort Wayne, IN and the Ship Canal Water Quality Project in Seattle, WA. Both considered essential work projects, steps were taken to ensure worker safety and lessened exposure (e.g., holding trainings outside, reduced mantrip capacities, no sharing of tools and required quarantining of anyone thought to be possibly exposed to the virus). For future project considerations, Colzani said some issues will likely be defining and application of force majeure status, insurance provisions (may exclude pandemics in the future), remote work provisions and revising health and safety requirement for pandemic planning.

The third presenter in the webinar, Bednarski, chief engineer at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, spoke about managing a staff of more than 350. As the nation’s largest wholesaler of water to some 19 million people, Bednarski detailed how the district has increased social distancing by implementing micro teams of three to four people who work only with each other and avoid cross-contamination risks.

With 24 active contracts paused back in March, all except one have been brought back online. Bednarski described other steps that have been taken in preventing spread of the virus, including continued teleworking for those can, virtual job walks and electronic bid submission. The water district has also conducted ongoing temperature checks, although he questioned its ultimate effectiveness. And, he reiterated that PPE is of course required.

Another method the water district has successfully employed is online remote video inspections, where a local domestic inspector is hired and he or she goes out to the shop floor and conducts the close-up inspection of many pieces of the equipment — the results of which are relayed via video back to Metro’s staff in Southern California.

The fourth and final speaker was Mooney, professor of civil engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO. With a perspective from the academia side of handling the pandemic’s fallout, he discussed the challenges associated with hands-on labs, administering exams without sacrificing academic integrity and canceled field trips.

Mooney said recorded lectures were and will continue to be required. A downfall of our now ubiquitous video-conferencing world, he explained, is that there is noticeably less interaction and dynamic exchange among students. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, he reported that online office hours are up considerably compared to typical in-person office-hours visits.

For international students, their challenges are twofold as travel is very limited, if not impossible, and they also face visa issues with almost all U.S. embassies closed. Consequently, of the roughly 50 percent who returned home in the spring, almost none of those students is expected to return this fall.

With plans in place for a hybrid model this fall, all classes will have remote delivery for those who don’t feel safe. Mooney talked about the unfortunate impacts to state universities that will likely result in hiring freezes, possible salary reductions and furloughs. But a bright spot he ended on is how CSM is has moved to create and develop an online graduate certificate program in underground construction and tunneling engineering. With three eight-week asynchronous courses offered, it will launch in January 2021 — the only program of its kind in North America.

A recording of this free webinar is available on the UCA of SME site at https://bit.ly/33MRfBY.

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