With breathtaking views of mountains and waterways, innovative tech hubs, and city views of construction cranes, Oregon and Washington have hosted a booming construction industry over the last few decades.

Our Pacific Northwest construction ecosystem is huge. In 2019, an estimated 256,880 individuals were directly employed in construction, with countless others working in the various service, retail, and supply chain roles that support the industry. When COVID-19 entered the picture, it wasn’t just the delay in project completion that had contractors and industry partners on high alert.

The Associated General Contractors of America (“AGC”) is a national trade association advocating for federal, state, and local measures that support the construction industry. AGC provides learning opportunities and connects members with resources for more than 27,000 construction organizations. Since two of Schwabe’s largest offices are in Portland and Seattle, we reached out to our local AGC chapters to learn how our clients are innovating for good and fueling change against a pandemic that has undoubtedly changed how we all do business.

At this point, we’ve all seen how COVID-19 guidelines vary from state to state, and it is interesting to learn about the different measures taken by AGC Oregon and AGC of Washington, while both chapters are driven by the same overarching concept: safety.

We first met with AGC Oregon and heard how a lightbulb moment at a conference (pre-COVID-19, of course) inspired their chapter to get a head start at keeping construction going in the face of a pandemic. We then “sat down” with AGC of Washington to learn how they proactively worked with Governor Inslee to open construction back up, in a time where most businesses were trapped in a standstill.

Part One – AGC Oregon Chapter: Acting Quickly to Keep the Lights On

To learn how AGC Oregon is innovating for good, we met with Mike Salsgiver, Executive Director, Dennis Barlow, Director of Safety Services, Karla Holland, Communication and Technology Manager, and Viktoria Schulz, Events Manager, to hear how their chapter acted fast in the face of COVID-19.

The backstory: With 800 plus members, AGC Oregon is one of the largest chapters in the nation. Members join for meaningful events, and safety resources, products, and services that help make their construction businesses more competitive and to help meet the current and future needs of the industry in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

In March 2020, Mike Salsgiver, Executive Director, Dennis Barlow, Director of Safety Services, Viktoria Schulz, Events Manager, and others on the Oregon team were at the AGC Annual Convention in Las Vegas. To take a break from the conference, they attended a Pac-12 basketball tournament, and at halftime, the announcer indicated this was the last game of the tournament that fans would be allowed to attend. The team knew it was time to face the reality of COVID-19 and do everything they could to keep construction open.

The goal was simple: keep the construction industry up and running.

AGC Oregon Springs into Action: By the time they returned to Oregon, Dennis Barlow, Director of Safety Services, was already working with Oregon OSHA, Oregon Health Authority, the CDC, and with a number of other chapters within AGC America. The Safety Council was able to distill down the most important information and rewrite in a language to allow construction workers to contextualize the guidelines as they pertain to job sites. The materials focused on:

  • How to work
  • How to treat employees and what to do each day when they arrived for work
  • How to message around COVID-19
  • What things can be done on the job site to continue to perform specific tasks

Within a week, they were ready to start launching job site safety and health guidelines, which were critical in communicating to Oregon’s government and elected leaders, the industry was serious about responding positively and adequately to the executive orders. In a team effort,  they were able to distribute around 500 banners and 4,500 posters throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Nearly overnight, Karla Holland, Communication and Technology Manager, was able to update the AGC Oregon website so members could navigate with ease and access the important materials that would ultimately help keep the construction industry open for Oregon.

The result: Construction stayed open in Oregon. AGC Oregon got materials into the hands of their 800 plus members while creating resources that any construction business could utilize. The resources and materials allowed businesses across the state to proactively take measures to keep employees safe. Not only were construction sites able to continue to operate, but AGC Oregon was also able to donate hard-to-find N95 masks to healthcare workers at the onset of the pandemic.

Because safety has always been a priority for AGC, many worksites already had face shields on hand to protect their workers from construction-related hazards. Early on, AGC Oregon realized that these shields would meet requirements related to face coverings and could be used to protect employees against COVID-19.

Events have changed too. Like others in many industries, Viktoria Schulz, Events Manager, had to find new ways to help members connect when in-person events were no longer an option. Now construction might not be at the forefront of your mind when you think about industries that discovered how digital could actually bring more people together, but Schulz found that the pandemic created new ways to engage with the AGC membership.

A big part of AGC is the safety trainings they provide to help workers and managers stay safe on jobsites. Before COVID-19, trainings were typically held in person. Because members are located all over Oregon, they would often have to travel to a training location or likewise, AGC would have to travel to them. With online trainings, AGC is able to efficiently provide this educational resource to their members. While post-pandemic conferences and other events will likely happen in person, AGC will also continue their online training programs.

Keeping construction open in Oregon was (and is) no small feat. Mike Salsgiver, Executive Director, AGC Oregon said it well with, “When you’re in a real crisis, you have to be collaborative and supportive of other folks. I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to accomplish that by acting quickly and working together.”

Part Two – AGC of Washington: Building a Framework for Reopening

To learn how AGC of Washington mobilized to reopen construction, we heard from Mandi Kime, Director of Safety, David D’Hondt, Executive Vice President, and Jerry VanderWood, Chief Lobbyist, who shared what happens when you open-source resources to fight a pandemic’s effect on your industry.

The backstory: Like Oregon, construction is a huge part of Washington’s economy. With more than 260,000 employed in the construction industry or about six percent of the working population, it’s no small amount. Additionally, construction contributes approximately 20 percent of all sales taxes.

Washington wasn’t as lucky as Oregon when it came to keeping the doors open for the construction industry. On March 25, 2020, Governor Inslee shut down all “non-essential businesses” in Washington State, with an order that stated, “Non-essential business shall cease operations except for performing basic minimum operations.” In general, construction was deemed non-essential though there were scenarios where construction in Washington was allowed to continue. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of confusion around the order.

Knowing that the livelihood of many was on the line, AGC of Washington had to act fast to get construction back open for their members—and the industry.

Mandi Kime, Director of Safety, credits their great working relationships with Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries, federal OSHA, and other chapters, including AGC Oregon, with helping AGC of Washington mobilize quickly to get resources into the hands of their members.

“There is no plagiarism in safety”

Pre-pandemic, AGC of Washington operated on a model that jobsite safety was always a number one priority. Though many of the existing assets already lent themselves towards COVID-19 prevention (as a side effect of safety) on sites, AGC of Washington started participating in “town halls” to help dial in the various guidance that was tailored for this pandemic, and translated it into materials that contextualized it for workers. They were able to create resources including site-specific safety programs, updates to corporate manuals that reflected preventative COVID-19 efforts on the jobsite, and developed “toolbox-top” training. More importantly, they were able to take these materials to the governor to help reopen construction.

They participated in roundtables that brought the Department of Labor and Industries together with AGC of Washington to establish a plan that worked within the phased reopening approach and covered hot-topic issues like social distancing on jobsites. In bringing a plan with them that covered the mandate’s concerns, they were able to move reopening along.

Getting (and keeping) construction open as an industry means sharing resources with everyone, including those who are not AGC members. The Washington team quickly realized that it was to their members’ benefit to share their resources with everyone for the sake of the industry. Keeping things “open-source” allows for everyone to adhere to the best practices that help the industry to keep operating. Their video, COVID-19 Phase-I Jobsite Safety, has more than 12,500 views.

So where do we go from here?

The quick, collaborative efforts and proactive response led by AGC of Washington helped the construction industry reopen in Washington. Working with various government agencies helped AGC to establish guidelines that are compliant while being approachable for construction workers.

Another exciting area that AGC of Washington was able to address was that of mental health. There’s no doubt that this pandemic has affected many when it comes to mental well-being. AGC of Washington has been able to create resources for managers to address the pandemic-related mental health and wellness concerns that accompany this time of uncertainty.

As construction continues to shape the skylines and economies of the Pacific Northwest, we can expect both AGC of Washington and Oregon to continue fueling change in their industry. Each chapter is proof that through communication and collaboration, we can work together and innovate for good, even during a pandemic.

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