GRAND RAPIDS — The construction industry operates within a system of safety guidelines and rules intended to ensure that workers remain safe and that projects get built to the appropriate standards.
Brad Laackman, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Honor Construction, would like to see similar regulatory guidance when it comes to doing business in the coronavirus era. Not only would guidance around proper coronavirus mitigation measures help keep construction job sites safe, but also it would help people regain confidence to restart the economy, he said.
In the absence of protocols, proper guidance and widespread virus testing, Laackman believes clients will begin “tip-toeing back into capital construction.”
“I’m really looking forward to some structure there or some guidelines and usually this would be OSHA,” Laackman said in a late-April interview. “OSHA hasn’t come out with anything right now for COVID to say, ‘This is what we recommend.’ I want some more guidelines to be able to follow and to empower my subcontractors with.
“In my mind — and maybe it’s the military in me — send me the rules and I will adhere to the rules. I don’t want to make up my own rules. That never ends well for anybody.”
Laackman likens the situation to the development of safety protocols decades ago for dealing with asbestos.
“Some of us in the construction industry looked at that and said, ‘That’s a pain in the ass,’ but it still was something. I’d rather say that’s a pain in the ass or it’s overkill and get that kind of response than nothing at all,” he said. “If you came out with that, that opens up confidence for owners, subcontractors and general contractors like myself. It clears the playing field. And yes, maybe construction will take 10 or 15 percent longer because we’ve got to do other stuff — or maybe there’s more cost to construction because now everybody’s got to buy a lot of PPE — but at least there’s something.”
Honor Construction was coming off its best year ever in 2019 with a project backlog stretching into 2021. The company also started 2020 with its highest staffing level ever. All signs pointed toward a break-out year, Laackman said.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and “everything just screeched to a halt for clients’ confidence in the economy.” None of the company’s projects have been canceled thus far, according to Laackman, who noted that Honor Construction remained busy during the shutdown because it was working on some projects deemed essential under the Michigan executive order.
After talking with his staff, he came to the conclusion that the shutdown of the construction industry was “really, really appropriate” to ensure workers’ safety.
For the essential projects that remained in process during the shutdown, team communication took on heightened importance as clients and subcontractors learned to deal with digital tools like Zoom and GoToMeeting
“I’ve always run a very flexible company about people working remotely and working from home, or working wherever, as long as they hit their job goals,” Laackman said. “That really came in handy when everybody ended up doing that here at our company. It wasn’t a new thing. We’re a mobile company. For companies that didn’t have that before, I think that was a big learning curve.”
The other wild card, even for essential projects, came down to whether municipalities remained open for inspections and permits “and all those things that run alongside a project.” Laackman praised the city of Grand Rapids for its responsiveness, but said the experience was lacking with other unnamed municipalities.
He also called out West Michigan subcontractors, many of whom were working at less than full staffing levels, for stepping up to tackle essential projects in health care.
“It was a great show of West Michigan teamwork that if there was something essential, I didn’t hear a ‘no,’ I just heard, ‘It might take a little longer,’” he said.
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