A Conversation with Alex McNeill, Director of Operations
by Brandy Bertram, VP of Development
The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis have, and continue to be, far-reaching. Individuals and businesses alike are working to find a new normal, changing behaviors and activities to support our collective efforts to limit the spread of the virus and combat its ill effects on our communities. At Bridges to Prosperity, we are working quickly to adapt our organization-wide safety and wellness protocols to ensure the continued health, safety, and well-being of our team members and to protect the communities where we build.
Recently, I met (virtually) with B2P’s Enterprise Risk and Safety Manager and experienced bridge builder, Alex McNeill, to understand more about our approach to safe construction and how, in this new reality, we are adapting.
Brandy Bertram (BB): Alex, welcome! Thanks for joining me to talk safety, something I know is very dear to you and your work.
Alex McNeill (AM): Absolutely. My pleasure.
BB: Alex, I’m curious. What has B2P’s approach always been regarding safe construction?
AM: Good question. B2P’s approach to safe construction has always been that health and safety is our primary concern and that we cannot build bridges successfully if we are not doing it safely. That’s always been our motto at Bridges to Prosperity. And, our safety program is always a work in progress. Luckily we have a host of corporate partners in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries who we are constantly able to learn from and partner with to ensure we are up to date on the latest and best practices.
BB: Nice! It’s great to have back up. About our construction safety program, can you give me a broad outline? What does that entail?
AM: I don’t think about health and safety only in terms of construction safety. I think of health and safety as the health, safety, and welfare of all our staff, every minute of every day. If you just think and talk about safety in terms of construction safety, you don’t create a positive safety culture. So, we talk about it and think about it in everything we do and we work to make it personal so that people make safe decisions for themselves and their teammates, because they understand why it matters to them, not just because it is part of some B2P policy.
BB: Alex, let’s talk about COVID-19 for a bit. How has it shifted, or impacted, our safety program at B2P?
AM: It has shifted it, obviously. We’ve had to add more COVID-19-specific mitigations as a result. But the way our health and safety program is structured – not just focused on construction safety but inclusive of how we keep all staff safe on a day-to-day basis – has meant that we were already quite advanced in the protection of our teams. For example, in Rwanda and Uganda, we had already added measures to protect the health and safety of our staff in case of an Ebola outbreak in the region. That meant making sure we had handwashing stations on every site. Handwashing stations don’t necessarily make a construction site safer, but they do make for a safer workplace in general for all team members. So, COVID-19 has shifted our mitigations, but it hasn’t changed our approach. I think that’s why we were able to adapt so quickly with the new measures and is why our staff have been so supportive in getting the new protocols up and running.
BB: That’s super beneficial, Alex. It makes sense why we could move so quickly. Everyone already valued and practiced a culture of safety so it was easier to adapt on and off construction sites. Speaking of construction sites, paint a picture for me of what someone might see if they came to a B2P bridge site in terms of COVID-19 safe practice.
AM: Sure. It’s kind of a lot so stay with me. When you arrive, you’ll notice that the site is cordoned off, much like you would see on a construction site in the US or UK. At the entrance, there is our standard B2P safety bulletin board with general site rules which has been updated to include specific instructions about COVID-19 safe practices like handwashing, safe distancing, and mask wearing. Next, you’ll see people waiting in a socially-distanced line with masks on waiting to get thermally scanned to screen for fever and interviewed to check for any potential risk. Afterwards, they then thoroughly wash their hands and complete a sign-in process helping us track every person who enters our build site. Next, you’d watch our teams get outfitted with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) before they move on to attend our morning meeting (we call it a toolbox talk) where, in addition to the day’s safety and construction plan, they receive a daily refresh COVID-19 training including how to safely prevent it on the job and at home.
BB: That is a lot. And all before any construction takes place! What kind of other COVID-19 adaptations are in place that might not be so easily seen by a visitor, but that are still important to our health and safety program?
AM: One important thing we’ve done is added a COVID-19 Safety Representative to every site. They are personally responsible, in partnership with the site foreman, for ensuring all of our mitigations are followed. Our in-country Health, Safety, and Welfare Managers also administer a virtual training program for all staff to help them understand the disease, what it is and how it spreads, as well as detailed instructions on the process and reasoning for each new rule or mitigation. Again, it is a priority for us that our people understand the importance of our health and safety protocols not just for us, but for them personally. Finally, we have a robust reporting mechanism that we can put into immediate action should anyone experience COVID-19 symptoms or be exposed to anyone who is reported to be ill or exhibiting symptoms. This is coordinated through our in-country Health and Safety teams and in partnership with our local government partners in compliance with each area’s prevention programs. It’s important to us that not only do our team members feel safe, but that our partner agencies and communities feel confident that we are doing all we can to keep us and them safe.
BB: Alex, say more about the impact of our safety and welfare program on our communities. I’ve been focused on our construction sites so far, but clearly there is a broader impact.
AM: Our intention has always been to not just meet local regulations, but to combine best practice health and safety behaviors with local knowledge and context to ensure a relevant safety program is created. Every B2P bridge-building team includes local community leaders and workers. It is our intention that the training and behavior change that we are fostering on site is taken back into the community, team member by team member, as they share what they’ve learned with their networks and families.
BB: Alex, I can’t imagine that all of this isn’t coming at some sort of cost to B2P. Can you share more about how?
AM: Yes, and the cost isn’t just monetary. We’ve had delays in our schedule as countries implemented restrictions on movement and operations to keep their citizens safe. We’re doing all we can to absorb these immediate impacts for our projects underway and we are working with all of our partners to adapt moving forward.
BB: That’s really amazing that we have the ability to absorb any part of the burden in a time like this. I think I can speak for all of us when I say a loud thank you to our donors who, through their generosity, are allowing us to stay nimble and keep building in a rapidly changing environment. In terms of this rapidly evolving situation, where guidance seems to change every day, what are you reading, who are you following, to stay on top of it all?
AM: International SOS, Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization are who we look to in the global context. At a local level, Ministries of Health and our National and District Government and community partners help keep us informed of area-specific context and policy. Also, as I mentioned earlier, our Corporate Partners have been amazing help, providing expertise and training.
BB: Are there any Partners that you’d like to give a specific shout out to?
AM: Yes! Kiewit Corporation, Flatiron Construction and Brinkman Construction have provided invaluable insight and advice from the Corporate perspective. And, we’re greatly appreciative of the support provided by our Government and community partners.
BB: Last question. As you look forward to the future, what continued and new impacts do you see?
AM: With international travel likely continuing to be difficult, I see us putting even greater focus on developing in-country leadership and reviewing our processes to leverage technology and achieve greater efficiencies. And, for our Corporate Partners and funders, I see us having to ask them to be agile along with us until they can once again visit our sites and communities in person.