The Latest: How COVID-19 Is Impacting Bridge- and Road-Related Operations

Roads & Bridges Media has been conducting an ongoing survey of people in bridge- and road-related industries to find out how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and their operations. 

The respondents work at engineering firms, departments of transportation and other government agencies, contracting businesses, companies that supply building and other materials, businesses that provide lifts and other equipment, testing firms, subcontractors, and more. The survey represents a broad array of industry perspectives and presents a current and evolving picture of how municipalities and businesses are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. It also  shows that the jobs these people do are considered essential during the COVID-19 crisis, but it’s becoming more and more challenging to get them done. Every day, people have to find ways to maintain critical bridge and road infrastructure while trying to keep workers safe and healthy. 

Bridges and roads keep vital forms of transportation up and running. They allow doctors and other medical professionals to get to work. They are a vital part of the supply chain that keeps people fed and delivers things like disinfectants, medicines, and protective masks and gloves to where they’re needed.

Here’s what the survey has found to date, along with insights that could help you manage your operations more effectively during these challenging times.

Bridge and road workers are experiencing COVID-19-related stress.

Everyone is feeling stress because of the coronavirus pandemic. People are being forced to work in different ways and handle new responsibilities, like educating kids at home and caring for sick relatives.

The survey shows that it’s also impacting most of the people who look after bridges and roads across the United States, some more than others. Almost half of respondents report experiencing mild stress, and the other half report sizable or severe stress.

According to the report, organizations are taking the following measures to help deal with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic: 

  • Mandating that employees stay at home if they’re sick or if family members are ill.
  • Partially or completely banning face-to-face meetings between employees or with outside business partners.
  • Partially or completely banning employee travel.
  • Keeping offices open but allowing employees to work from home or mandating that they do so. 
  • Closing offices and halting operations.

All these things contribute to greater on-the-job stress.

According to contacts in our network, bridge-related businesses are dealing with challenges faced by few other industries. It’s almost impossible to keep people 6 feet apart while working on bridge projects, as well as maintaining sanitary work conditions. It’s also difficult to perform certain tasks while wearing masks and glSet featured imageoves.

Companies are used to providing protective gear to employees in work zones to keep them safe. They should expand on this practice by offering hand sanitizers, masks, and gloves as needed to protect against the transmission of the novel coronavirus among workers. It could help relieve some of the worry they have to deal with every day.

Businesses and municipalities face work slowdowns.

Despite the importance of the work that firms and state agencies do to maintain bridges and roads, most are expecting slowdowns and project pauses, depending on the progress and impact of the pandemic in areas across the United States.

When it comes to ongoing work:

  • 37% of respondents to the Roads & Bridges Media survey expect projects to be postponed.
  • 47% think work will be delayed.
  • Only 29% say all work is continuing as planned.

Note: The numbers do not add up to 100% because the survey allows multiple answers to this question.

For firms that expect work to be impacted by COVID-19-related issues, the survey reports that:

  • 43% think one or two projects will be cancelled.
  • 18% believe more than two projects will be cancelled.
  • 39% expect no projects to be cancelled.

People at the companies we work with are concerned that municipal clients could delay and cancel projects because finances may become strained. Many local areas are being forced to shift budget dollars to medical care, remote education, and other coronavirus-related expenses. A few believe that project work could come back in a big way once medical professionals issue the all-clear to go back to normal working conditions. However, many experts think that this could be a year or two away. Owners of smaller firms are worried that their futures could be in jeopardy in the near term.

Another issue: If businesses are forced to lay off workers, they may lose them forever and not be able to regain their institutional and organizational knowledge. The one bright light they see in this area is that remote workers could eventually provide the experience they need to keep their operations going effectively.

Some operational and financial stress could be relieved if businesses take advantage of all the government aid opportunities available to them, including the Cares Act Paycheck Protection Program loans for businesses with fewer than 500 employees. It could help them get through the next few months of uncertainty with a cushion that allows them to develop longer-term plans as more information about what a post COVID-19 economy and bridge industry will look like is released.

Another possibility: Congress could provide additional stimulus funding or approve a major infrastructure bill that might lead to increased bridge work rather than cuts.

Coronavirus is impacting the supply chain.

With the coronavirus crisis only about two months old in the U.S., almost a third of survey respondents report that they’re already dealing with supply chain issues, and more than a third expect them soon. Unless steps are taken immediately, supply shortages could have a significant impact on organizations’ ability to properly maintain bridges and roads and keep transportation flowing. Specifically:

  • 11% are experiencing severe interruptions.
  • 25% are experiencing minor interruptions. 
  • 37% expect future interruptions.
  • 27% do not expect any interruptions.

In many parts of the country, bridge and road work has been halted or reduced because of winter weather conditions. The real impact of supply chain issues will only be known in the weeks and months ahead as seasonal work ramps up. Smart organizations will take steps now to make sure they have the equipment and supplies required to keep working for the foreseeable future.

Beyond this, anyone who works on bridges and roads during this period of incredible change must stay on top of the news and closely connected with business partners. It’s the only way to be able to take advantage of opportunities that arise and plan for cuts and other issues that could impact them in the months and years ahead.