|Williams Shuts Down Construction After Worker Raises COVID-19 Concerns|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
05:28PM / Friday, March 27, 2020
|A worker at the science center construction site at Williams College says it's impossible to follow the 6-foot separation guidelines on the job. |
Update at 6:04 p.m.: Williams College is shutting down all construction on both the North Science Building and Fort Bradshaw projects as of the end of day Friday.
According to an email from Fred Puddester, vice president of finance and administration, "neither of the firms managing these two projects have reported any positive cases of COVID-19 on either work site."
iBerkshires.com was forwarded this notification at 5:53 p.m., although the first communication within Williams' departments came nearly an hour before. iBerkshires had requested comment since Thursday morning.
Not only are the construction projects being shutdown, Puddester wrote, "starting tomorrow, Saturday, March 27, Weston Field and the college tennis courts will be locked and closed until further notice" in response to reports they are being used without practicing social distancing. _________________________________________________________________________________________
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A construction worker who has been employed on Williams College's Science Center North Addition project Thursday took exception with the assertions the college has made about the safety protocols in place at the site.
The man, who we're calling "Bob" to provide anonymity, emailed iBerkshires.com on Thursday morning to challenge the tone of Wednesday's article
about a worker associated with the project who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Specifically, Bob refuted the contention that a worker from the electrical construction firm Comalli Group, who has tested positive, had contact with just two other Comalli employees who have been at the Williamstown site.
"It's true that the Comalli employee was never on the job site," Bob wrote. "What they didn't tell you is that Comalli had a company training which the infected employee and all their workers attended. So he obviously was in close contact with everyone in that room."
iBerkshires.com is protecting Bob's identity out of respect for his wish to protect his employer, a subcontractor under Barr & Barr Inc., of New York, the general contractor on the Williams project.
"I don't hold any negative feelings toward my company because their hands are tied," Bob said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
"My company has to fulfill a certain amount of manpower on the job to maintain our contract. If we don't fulfill that, my company can be monetarily fined for not manning the job as needed."
Bob said that such contract provisions are standard in the industry, and agreements generally do not include provisions for circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he believes that his employer and other subcontractors are employed directly by Barr & Barr, not the college.
"It's my understanding it's with Barr & Barr, but Williams College is driving the ship," Bob said.
iBerkshires.com requested a comment from the college about Bob's email through a spokesperson on Thursday morning. As of Friday at 5 p.m., there was no reply.
On Wednesday, the college said it was waiting for a plan from Barr & Barr "showing their actions in response to a more stringent approach from the governor."
"According to the [commonwealth's] guidance, Williams' project is considered essential, and we'll continue to follow the state guidance," Williams College Director of Media Relations Gregory Shook said on Wednesday.
The guidelines, as drafted by the commonwealth and distributed to municipalities, outline a series of protocols that are mandatory on publicly-funded construction projects but still come across as recommendations for private projects like the one at Williams.
On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker indicated that it is up to local municipalities to decide whether the guidelines are being followed on projects, using Boston Mayor Marty Walsh's decision to shut down all construction in Boston on March 16 as an example.
"As long as people act on the guidance that was issued by state agencies and the command center to keep people safe, there's a lot of work that is, in our view, essential to the commonwealth, whether you're talking about housing or transportation or infrastructure," Baker said. "And, by the way, if you look at the federal guidelines on this, infrastructure is right there on the list of things that they consider to be essential.
"But, that said, in the guidelines we issued, one of the things we said is that the act of actually overseeing this stuff needs to be done at the municipal level for municipally-permitted work. Boston and several other municipalities have said — and it's a fair point — that they don't believe they're in a position at this point to do the work that would ensure that those guidelines were being adhered to on the ground on all the projects that are either underway or planned.
"If you think about Boston, in particular ... I am very sympathetic to the mayor's point of view that until he feels comfortable that the act of overseeing and enforcing those guidelines — which we care about a lot, too, because we don't want people working in an unsafe manner — are being adhered too, he's not going to open it back up, and I get that."
The commonwealth's decision to put the onus on local governments presents a challenge to municipalities.
"[North Adams] Mayor [Tom] Bernard and I have shared our concerns directly with the college about minimizing risk to construction workers and their families, our own employees and their families and the communities we serve in light of the escalating conditions within the county and state as well as the challenges our first-responders and health professionals are facing in obtaining critical PPE," Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch said. "Williamstown will continue to evaluate how to responsibly and safely allocate our limited staff and protective equipment in light of the college's clear intent to continue construction work and the governor's expectation that local governments now must oversee these expanded safety guidelines."
Bob challenged both the idea that the guidelines are being adhered to on the Science Center site and the notion that the $204 million project is "essential."
"No one has an answer to us of why we're essential," he said. "I get it that we're paying taxes, paying our dues, going to work. At the same time, this Williams College job is a science building for kids who aren't even there and may not even be back there in the fall. And it's a 1-percenter college.
"Is this really necessary?"
Bob also questions why Williams College was one of the first entities in the commonwealth to take steps to have its employees work from home — announcing an end to on-site classes as of March 14
— but nearly two weeks later its construction projects go on.
"I don't want to be a real naysayer, but I think it's hypocritical," he said. "Without us, you don't get your new building. … I find it ironic that they were the first to close down and refuse to close the job down."
In his Thursday morning email, Bob said maintaining the 6-foot social isolation guideline on a job site like Williams' is impossible and that Barr & Barr has provided seven portable toilets and two portable hand-washing sinks for more than 100 workers on the site.
He reiterated those points on the phone.
"A construction site is always a Petri dish," Bob said. "In the summer, you're sweating like a pig. It's dingy, dirty, dusty. It's not a great working environment on a regular day.
"Back probably a month or two ago, we had a big flu thing go through our crew. We had four or five guys out with the stomach flu."
And in cold-weather months — like March — the closed-in spaces at the North Addition are heated artificially, Bob said. The warm air is forced through hallways and spaces, potentially carrying viruses between workers even if they are able to stay 6 feet apart.
"The 6-foot rule on construction is impossible," said Bob, who has been in the business more than 10 years. "You'll always be in a room with people not just from your trade but other trades.
"I find it laughable when they say: If you wash your hands and use social-distancing, you'll be fine. The 6-foot rule doesn't work in construction, ever. It's a little aggravating to me."
On Friday, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health weighed in on Baker's directive on construction projects.
"Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's March 25 order to resume construction, requiring local authorities to withdraw orders that keeps construction workers safely at home, places profits over people at best, and at worst, is immensely dangerous to workers and the public," MassCOSH said in a news release.
"We are hearing reports from workers on public construction sites that the guidelines the state set out to protect its workers from COVID-19 are not being met," MassCOSH Executive Director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan said. "If these simple steps, which may not even be adequate to ensure worker safety, cannot be implemented at public work sites, how can we be sure they are being implemented by the private sector? The best course of action is to stop all non-essential work and ensure workers are being compensated for hours they would have been on the job."
Bob said he has reached out to unions that represent tradespeople on the college's site.
"Basically, what I've gotten is: They're looking into it," he said. "I think their hands are tied as well. They have obligations to the state and towns and colleges."
In the meantime, he said, workers like him feel stuck and uncertain about the threat to their health.
"Construction workers, to me, are being neglected, being overlooked and expected to carry on no matter what the circumstances," Bob said. "We have families. We're normal people.
"I think people sometimes have a bad perception of construction workers. Nine out of 10 of the guys are good dudes just trying to provide for their families."