Words: Cassandra Stern
Highly technical work is best performed in the best conditions for visibility, it is natural that masonry work is usually conducted during daylight hours, but that is not always the case. While night shifts have always been an alternative option for masonry crews on tight deadlines, the recent unprecedented pandemic has caused some mason contractors to become creative with their work crews to conform to health protocols while still staying on pace with project deadlines. We spoke with Zach Everett, Corporate Safety Director at Brazos Masonry in Waco, Texas to learn a little more about scheduling night shifts, staying safe while working at night, and maximizing efficiency during shifts with poor visibility.
The decision to schedule a night shift is not all too common, and it is not made without significant consideration, discussion, and planning. Especially if the purpose of the additional shift is to stagger the number of workers in one place at one time. In the case of COVID-19 precautions, an additional night shift allows foremen the opportunity to schedule fewer workers per shift while still completing the same amount of work. A smaller team also makes it easier to check people in, check temperatures, check the status of the workers, and fill out pre-work forms,” Everett explains.
Night shifts can also be considered when scheduling issues require them. Perhaps the scope of the project ends up exceeding the previous time estimates, or unforeseen problems arise on the jobsite in the course of completing the work. While unfortunate, from time to time these things happen to even the most prepared crews with the best-planned projects. “If you have a building that is not big enough to stretch out enough masons to stay on schedule during the day,” Everett gives us as an example. “Then you could do a second shift, so the same walls would be worked on for 16 hours. Just trying to meet the schedule is another reason to do a night shift. ”
A third reason, and probably the least utilized as it is regionally dependent, would be to schedule a night shift due to weather conditions. Extreme heat has become more common, especially in the southern US, and as a result, sometimes it can reach unsafe temperatures during the daylight hours. “If you’re working in a climate like Nevada or Eastern California, where temperatures can hit 110-115 degrees, it may be better to work at night when the temps have cooled down about 20 degrees or more” Everett suggests. Choosing to schedule night shifts when the blistering heat typically cools down to safer conditions, rather than put crews at risk, is always a great option to have as a foreman or superintendent.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of even the most experienced foremen and crew, night shifts are inevitably less productive than day shifts. It’s “typical logistics,” explains Everett, because “you can see everything during the day time, so you tend to move faster and can think further ahead.” Working at night means poor visibility, and limited vision impairs speed, efficiency, and accuracy. Additionally, tasks that already require caution and safety protocols like climbing ladders, getting and working on scaffolds at night cause the workers to be a bit more vigilant while working at night, which slows the pace for that reason rather than during the day.
Scaffolding presents a particularly challenging issue for night shift workers because pre-shift inspections are a requirement on every jobsite. To combat darkness, workers can use powerful spotlights, reflectors, and specialized lamps to better see scaffolding and other specialized equipment before operation. During the daytime, these required checklists and tasks can easily be performed without a second thought. During a night shift, however, there is an entire process of setting up the visible work area before the job can even begin, and afterward deep shadows and insufficient lighting can still pose problems.
Increased awareness of surroundings, as well as the location of other crew members, is essential at night at well, making communication even more crucial than during the day. “You have to make an exerted effort to inspect every component, which makes the process longer and harder when you can’t see the scaffold altogether at one time” Evertt provides a further example.
This need for communication and the best possible lighting conditions is even more important when it comes to operating heavy equipment at night, especially forklifts, skids, and cranes. Some of the heavier equipment is not equipped with the necessary equipment for safe and effective operation at night, especially models that are older or smaller than their typical counterparts.
To illustrate the unique challenge that heavy equipment operation poses to a night shift worker, Everett explains that you can put out light stands as you see at a football game as a means of lighting the work area where the equipment is needed. However, while this is easily manipulated and controlled for smaller tools like masonry saws or mortar mixers when it comes to larger machinery you would have to have them every path that the forklift is going to travel, as well as where the mixers are placed, and by everything stored in the path in between. This means foremen need to dedicate adequate time, resources, and manpower to prepare the area, which can cost crews valuable productivity and slow down efficiency drastically.
When it comes to scheduling night shifts, general superintendents need to consider all of this and then some before making the final decision. Night shifts are generally not viewed favorably by crews or foremen, especially because they require a major deviation from usual sleep habits and routines. It can take a considerable amount of time to acclimate to functioning on a night shift schedule, which is made all the more difficult because it goes against the way our bodies generally function. Transitioning to an opposite schedule opens up an additional safety concern as well, as diminished cognitive function as a result of sleep deprivation can pose significant impairments to a mason’s reaction time and awareness on the jobsite.
When asked if he would recommend night shifts to mason contractors considering them as a solution to COVID-19 related jobsite issues, Everett states that he would not, from a safety standpoint. He further explains that in his opinion, apart from an effort to escape unsafe heat conditions, there is no reason to work at night because the risk of hazards and safety concerns does not outweigh the benefits of working at night. However, one consideration Everett did make would be a mason contractor who builds a team that only works designated night shifts. “If you have had a crew that would work nights forever, then that specific crew would get with the routine, and in that rare instance, I would say ok,” he concedes.
Ultimately, it’s clear that while a night shift may not be the first or the most popular solution to schedule, heat, or health-related issues, it still deserves consideration and may be warranted in the correct circumstances. That being said, extra care and caution are necessary and specialized equipment like a headlight may be as well before a successful night shift can be put into place. If your mason contracting company is looking to expand its schedule and add a night shift and you are looking for more information on how to conduct one successfully including additional resources like Toolbox Talks or safety plans, be sure to check out the MCAA for more information.