TAMPA — Construction is a $2 billion-a-year industry in Tampa, so City Hall is sending nurse-inspectors to the 52 largest construction sites in town to help keep workers healthy and employed.
The use of nurses to do spot checks appears to be unique among the largest local governments in the Tampa Bay area. In Pinellas County, for example, sheriff’s deputies follow up on tips about construction sites that don’t follow the county’s health and safety guidelines.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has designated construction and infrastructure projects as essential businesses during the pandemic. On any given day, those 52 construction sites collectively have 10,000 to 12,000 workers on the job.
“That’s a great thing, because that’s an enormous engine that’s still still running, but also that’s an enormous amount of people that we really need to be mindful of relative to the spread of this disease,” said Carole Post, the city’s administrator for development and economic opportunity. “We wanted to give clear guidance to large construction sites in ways that could help their workers and those they might interact with after their work was over.”
So the city issued the industry about a dozen guidelines consistent with U.S. Centers for Disease Control advice to keep job sites safe. They include: Limit visitors and screen everyone coming onto a job site. Provide plenty of portable hand-washing facilities around the project. Keep workers more than six feet apart where possible. Limit the number of people inside construction trailers. Don’t allow food trucks onto job sites. Post signs about safe distancing on the job in both English and Spanish.
“Some of these we got from some of our large contractors who were already doing this or beginning to do it,” Post said. For example, Skanska, which is providing construction services on a $42 million innovation center at the University of South Florida, has projects in Asia, she said, “so they were months ahead of us in trying to tackle these things.”
But even then, city officials wondered how they would know that contractors consistently were using best practices to prevent the spread of the virus.
"That brought us to, ‘Why don’t we do spot checks?’ " Post said.
So the city contracted with Dr. James McCluskey, a Tampa occupational medicine physician who works as a medical director advising large organizations, and about 20 nurses, most from the faculty at Rasmussen College, to visit each of the 52 sites two to three times a week.
Maura Stafford, the associate dean of nursing at Rasmussen College–Tampa/Brandon, said she initially began talking with the city after someone she knows from church asked her if Rasmussen could send someone to talk to parks department staff about safely working with children during the pandemic. Stafford spoke to 30 or 40 parks employees and got a call from Post the next week about maybe finding some nurses for the inspection program.
The city and the college do not have a formal agreement. Rather, nursing faculty are doing the inspection work on their own time, a Rasmussen spokeswoman said.
Inspections began April 10 and generally found that construction sites were taking the precautions seriously, officials said.
“It was really great to see that many of the sites actually took the initiative to do pre-screening to ensure that their employees are safe,” Stafford said. “Others, of course, we are working with them.”
Along with checking for screening at the gate, social distancing and hand-washing, nurses ask about whether any employees feel sick or have had a change in their condition, so that employees who need to be isolated are not in a position to infect others.
McCluskey often deals with companies handling toxic chemicals or hazardous materials, but many of the principles apply to the COVID-19 pandemic, too.
“A lot of occupational medicine is prevention, and this program fits that perfectly,” he said.
“We realize that over time, there may be a little bit of fatigue due to this ongoing issue,” McCluskey said. “But we have to maintain that vigilance. We have to continue to stay six feet away from one another, to wash our hands and make sure that people aren’t forgetting such as when they go to lunch, that still holds true. You can’t say hello to your friend from two feet away when you’re just working six feet away from them. ... Maintaining that six feet is absolutely critical.”
If the nurse-inspectors find a problem, they bring it up with each job site’s designated COVID-19 compliance coordinator and note it in a site report sent to McCluskey.
“We’re not trying to catch you or ‘gotcha’ and issue a fine,” Post said. “It’s really about trying to reinforce good behavior."
By comparison, since Pinellas County adopted distancing guidelines for workplaces, deputies have responded to tips called in about employers who don’t have safeguards in place to discourage the spread of the virus.
“If we get a complaint, we would respond and check it out,” Pinellas sheriff’s Cpl. Chuck Skipper said. During the first week, the Sheriff’s Office fielded a few calls about construction sites. In the weeks since, it hasn’t gotten any.
In Tampa, developers and contractors helped organize the program and are paying for it, Post said. It’s a little early to say how much it will end up costing, but if the city continued the program for eight weeks it could work out to be about $10,000 per job site, or more than $500,000 total. All of the participating job sites are for what’s known as threshold projects in the state’s building codes. Each is three stories or 50 feet tall and includes at least 5,000 square feet of construction or is for a building with an occupancy of 500 or more people.
Post credited Nick Haines, the chief executive officer for Midtown Tampa developer The Bromley Companies, and Water Street Tampa head of development Charlie Rollins with helping to organize private sector support for the idea.
“I think all the contractors and all the the workers on the sites realized that their livelihoods were dependent on us really banding together and adhering to these protocols,” Haines said.
Bromley has offices and projects in New York City, as does its general contractor, Barr & Barr, so it saw the impact of the pandemic there weeks before the health crisis became an issue in Tampa. Early on, it took steps to increase the number of hand-washing stations throughout the Midtown Tampa project and to restrict visitor access to the site.
“Our strategy," Haines said, "was to do things in advance of being told to do them.”