Privy-leges Appreciated. Laborer Kelly Patton (right) and colleague Cher Marascalco use keys to pink potties (below left) provided by contractor on a Las Vegas resort expansion project. |
(Photo by Tony Illia for ENR)
Kelly Patton works out of laborers’ Local 872 in Las Vegas, where she is currently a flagger on the big MGM Grand project, and she’s giving the prime contractor on the job, Marnell Corrao Associates, high marks for an important part of her workday—the biobreak. “The contractor does a good job of keeping the restrooms clean, which is a big issue because the men’s restrooms can be disgusting,” she says. Unlike the many portable toilets she has encountered that are “soiled and reeking,” the pink potties on the MGM Grand project are only available to women who are given keys. “And they even have a grapefruit-scented smell as well as sanitary soap available,” she says.
|(Illustration by Guy Lawrence for ENR)|
Las Vegas’ laborers are the beneficiaries of detailed provisions of collective bargaining agreement work rules that also call for clean portable toilets on every floor of a highrise, daily washouts and measures to protect workers from sun and dehydration. But Las Vegas isn’t New York or Fort Worth and jobsites around the country vary from the primly pristine to the repulsive. “Soiled and reeking,” as Patton says, is a good way to describe many portable toilets on U.S. construction sites this hot summer, say workers.
The portable toilets are a part and a symbol of a bigger issue. At a time when the industry clamors for more workers and top contractors shoot for zero injuries, some employers are cultivating cleanliness and civility. Why? They believe both will help attract more workers, improve productivity, integrate women into the trades and make sure everybody goes home safe and sound. And before the skeptics ridicule the idea of a construction workers’ paradise, or scoff at lenient work rules that will cost precious minutes during the day, some pro-cleanliness contractors say they already are putting the ideas to good use.
Quality-of-life programs of different types have gained popularity as a way to implant positive feelings deep into workers’ psyches. At major industrial jobsites, such as Dow Chemical Co.’s Plaquemine, La., facility, owners are setting a standard by trying to banish mud with better drainage and cool sweaty brows with air-conditioned trailers. At Manson Construction Co., a marine contractor based in Seattle, managers are discovering their inner Dr. Phil and learning to value their colleagues as human beings. The net result is a more cooperative workplace, they say. And on the regulatory battlefield, a handful of “sanitationists” are pressing for new standards that will increase the federal minimum number of portable toilets per worker and improve their condition.
Dirt is an inescapable colleague of construction workers, with excavation, demolition and painting among the dirtiest endeavors. Field mechanics aren’t far behind. You can sometimes see them at lunch eating submarine sandwiches with greasy hands near their equipment.
Although federal regulations state that construction sites must be safe and clean, with toilets available and potable water for drinking and washing, what’s provided often falls short. “We’re still operating the way we did in 1920 as relates to hygiene,” says Stephen Cooper, former executive director for safety and health of the ironworkers’ union.
And some believe there is a common link among cleanliness, brutish interpersonal behavior and safety. In construction, “some people think it’s OK to hurt people or to treat them much more poorly than your family, with lousy places to eat and to go to the bathroom,” says Cort Dial, Americas operations manager for JMJ Associates, an Austin-based consulting company that makes personal transformation a part of its safety program. “The language that’s used in construction, is hired hands. Average workers are told you don’t matter, you’re an instrument to get work done with no intrinsic value.”
Others also see a message in the messiness. “Contractors who maintain their jobsites in a manner suitable for little more than barnyard animals quickly convey to those on the outside the character of their corporate and personal values,” says Rick Raef, a safety consultant for insurance broker Willis. The people on the payroll get the same message, he adds. Not everyone agrees that housekeeping is a big problem anymore.
Woody Norwood, a compliance assistance specialist with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Albuquerque, N.M., office, says citations in his area have gone down over the past five years because of aggressive enforcement and cooperation with industry associations. And a project manager for a mechanical contractor based in Birmingham, Ala., says general contractors are careful about housekeeping especially in prominent sites where it reflects on corporate image.
Lauren Sugerman, president of Chicago Women in Trades, counters that many contractors still have a long way to go in providing clean workplaces. Sugerman chaired an OSHA workgroup focused on health and safety of women in construction. Along with the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH), the workgroup recommended OSHA’s sanitation requirements be strengthened. A 1999 report—based on a survey of tradeswomen and two studies by NIOSH-ACCSH and the Health and Safety of Women in Construction workgroup—described situations where female workers had limited access to clean toilets, bathrooms or port-a-johns with locks on the doors, and water for washing dirty hands.
The 1999 report did not have the impact the workgroup had hoped or generate enough discussion, Sugerman says. “It would be nice if OSHA [took] the lead in that because a large part of the issues we raised are issues that have failed to capture the understanding of the industry.”
Despite existing federal standards on the number of portable toilets needed, too few are provided, and those that are provided are overused, claims Bill Carroll, executive director of Bloomington, Ind.-based Portable Sanitation Association (see p. 31). Workers interviewed by ENR all generally complained about latrine cleanliness but their response overall varied when it came to amenities. The most important quality-of-life improvement is safety and keeping physical wear and injuries to a minimum, many say.
|The Enemy Sun. European construction worker cools off. (Photo by AP/Wideworld)|
Nevertheless, some are pressing for quality-of-life initiatives. Construction of a new alkanolamines facility at Dow Chemical’s Plaquemine, La., facility presented an opportunity for construction management engineers Peter Koch and Bobby Koenig to test their belief that safety and productivity are intertwined and that workplace amenities and the overall sense of well-being support safety measures. “We believe if you provide for a good work environment up front, it will pay out through quality and safety throughout the project,” Koch says.
Lucky for them, key Dow stakeholders agreed to the concept and the investment. “You can have a really good idea and plan, but support has to start all the way at the top,” Koenig says. “If you don’t plan for it up front, there is always the drive to keep costs down.”
The duo set the tone with “intense and interactive orientation sessions,” during which employees were presented with Dow’s expectations for safe behaviors and professionalism. They invested in workplace amenities from the ground up, beginning with underground drainage and limestone to keep mud down on the site. Koenig, who has worked in every level of construction, says he knows how demeaning it can be to trudge through a muddy site day in and day out and wake up every morning with a bad attitude.
“For a long time, management didn’t care if those guys had to walk around in the mud all day,” Koenig says. “We sit in an office all day, pushing papers, but the workers are the ones that do the work.”
Likewise, the team invested in air-conditioned trailers for restrooms and lunch facilities, with refrigerators and microwaves. “Usually on a worksite, management has air-conditioned facilities and restrooms but everyone on the site doesn’t,” says Stan Fontenot, superintendent for Cajun Constructors Inc., Baton Rouge, a subcontractor performing civil work on the project. “When the temperature outside is 95° and a man has to go to the restroom, the port-a-can can be 120°. No matter how often you clean those port-a-cans, the smell is still there.”
Workers were far from unanimous when it came to anything except clean toilets. For example, one carpenter said it was good to have access to an air-conditioned half-trailer with project plans at a small site in humid Piermont, N.Y., but having lunch in an air-conditioned trailer probably wasn’t a good idea because “once you go sit for a half hour in a different temperature, your body will never adjust again to the heat or cold outside and you will never get anything done.” An ironworker in northern California said he thought air-conditioning, if available, would lead to breaks getting “stretched.” Similarly, a research report available from the Construction Users Roundtable written in the late 1980s included excessive wash-up time as part of a productivity slide on union sites.
There also are cultural differences that run along trade and gender lines. Ironworkers and carpenters might drop their tools and work where they are or plop down in any shady spot for a half-hour lunch and won’t go far to eat in a special shack. Electricians and plumbers, on the other hand, more often leave their work areas to eat, some workers say.
Do men care about filth? “Most guys are slobs and could care less about a clean place to eat,” says Ryan Plecas, a pile driving foreman who works in British Columbia. A water cooler, not a sink, is all that’s needed for wash-ups, some say.
Bathrooms are more personal. Sue Laforest, a project manager with Graham Construction & Engineering JV, Calgary, Alberta, reminisced about a site that had a flush toilet. And some men say women should have their own toilets—just what Nevada’s Kelly Patton says is so important to her.