COVID-19 Has Turned the Status Quo Upside Down, But Aggregates Producers Are Putting Their Best Foot Forward.
By Mark S. Kuhar
It is all but impossible to believe. The first week of March, we were at ConExpo-Con/Agg in Las Vegas, and just starting to hear about COVID-19, or the coronavirus. At that time, there were only several hundred cases reported in the United States, and a handful of deaths. Now, six weeks later at this writing, there are almost 800,000 cases and more than
As states initiated a sweeping response to the emerging pandemic, the economy also became one of the victims of COVID-19. All across the country, businesses, restaurants, bars and retail stores closed their doors, as a huge chunk of the population learned the meaning of “shelter in place.”
Early on, it was ruled that “essential businesses” could stay open. The National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA) jumped into action, lobbying government officials that aggregates operations were indeed essential businesses and should remain open and functioning. That effort paid off.
“As you are aware, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its updated ‘Essential Critical Infrastructure
Workers Guidance (2.0),’” NSSGA stated in a letter to members signed by Darin Matson, NSSGA chairman; and Michael W. Johnson, NSSGA president and CEO. “The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) revised its approach to the ‹essential› definition by including aggregates operators and determining mining as an essential industry.
“We are in a unique position under this designation as the exemption for ‘essential infrastructure’ allows our people and industry to continue working and supporting local economies. Construction materials (including aggregates) and connected industries are essential to America’s economy. It’s imperative that we maintain our nation’s critical infrastructure and enable the necessary work to continue by those that provide essential labor, materials and support for the construction industry.
“Shutting down the ability of our industries to serve our nation and maintain our physical infrastructure will impact the economic viability of the entire nation, not to mention numerous businesses. Already, the industry has experienced the economic impact with halted or delayed projects; disruptions in the supply chain; permit and inspection delays; and equipment or materials shortages.
“COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our daily lives, and we understand the unique challenges our members are facing to keep our business and work sites fully functional. We have been closely monitoring the situation, and we realize that continuing to operate as an “essential” workforce impacts our members in different ways.
“We are working diligently to safeguard the collective interests of our members and advocate for supportive legislative and regulatory developments. Changing our position on the aggregates industry as an essential workforce would produce more negative consequences in the long-run than the benefits we could realize in the short-term.
“First and foremost, it would negatively impact our ability to advocate effectively with legislators on future considerations, if we are then not seen as essential. As a ‘non-essential’ workforce, unemployment would increase, along with the closure or delay of critical state projects and infrastructure bills that help bolster our nation’s economy at both a local and national level.
“As always, our priority remains the health and safety of our people. Operating as an essential business does not necessarily place us in an “either/or” situation. As long as we continue to follow CDC guidelines and social distancing best practices at work and at home, we can be a safe and essential provider of construction materials NSSGA has many resources on our website to aid our members in protecting their workers, including a Best Management Practices Guide, Online Resources for Addressing COVID-19 and additional mine operator resources. We thank you for helping us enable operations to continue during such uncertain times.
“Thank you for your support and understanding. Working together as member companies empowers NSSGA to best serve and support you during these unprecedented times,” the letter concluded.
NSSGA, via the Highway Materials Group (HMG), also petitioned Congressional leadership requesting federal support for state Department of Transportation (DOT) agencies who are facing decreasing revenues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Producers Step Up
Aggregates producers, armed with the knowledge that they are indeed “essential businesses” stepped up to the plate to assure employees and customers that it is “all systems go.”
Vulcan Materials posted a dedicated COVID-19 page for statements to employees, customers, haulers/logistics and suppliers, according to Janet F. Kavinoky, vice president, external affairs and corporate communications.
“Vulcan continues to serve our aggregates, asphalt, ready-mixed concrete, agricultural lime and construction business customers and at this time, we’re open for business,” the company stated on the site. “Vulcan operations have been classified as ‘essential business’ or related to providing ‘critical infrastructure’ in states or localities where shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders have been issued.
“Employee health is guiding our decisions. At our plants and other work sites, we have added to our safety protocols and practices the CDC-recommended measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including practicing social distancing, to keep our employees healthy. Office-based employees, sales representatives and logistics service center teams are working from home and are available to assist you via e-mail or telephone,” the company stated on the site.
Martin Marietta Materials released the following statement in light of the current COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic:
“Martin Marietta remains open for business and is ready to meet your product and service needs. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in North America, our first priority has been, and remains, the health and safety of all who our business touches. We continue to closely monitor national, regional and local developments and take necessary steps to ensure that our stakeholders and business remain safe, healthy and prosperous.
“Our focus has been four-fold: Communication, Resource Management and the resiliency of Essential Work Functions allowing for Business Continuity. Prudent steps we’ve undertaken include enhanced screening protocols and increased frequency of equipment and facility cleaning. Further, we have been continually educating our teams and providing them with the resources they need – including remote access and social distancing – to keep themselves and their families safe.
“Martin Marietta is wholly committed to providing quality products and superior service. Our values are consistent, enduring and transparent: Safety, Integrity, Excellence, Community and Stewardship.
“Relationships matter at Martin Marietta and we thank you for the loyalty and trust you place in us. Thank you also for your patience and continued patronage as we navigate this challenging and uncertain situation.”
LafargeHolcim stated, “We at the LafargeHolcim family of companies recognize that these are unsettling times as the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation continues to change around the globe and here in the United States. As a company, we continue to closely monitor developments related to the spread of the virus and are initiating proactive actions to protect the health and safety of our customers, employees, suppliers and partners. We want to ensure that we comply with all government directives to aid in stopping the spread of the virus and bring about an end to the pandemic as quickly as possible.”
Jaime Muguiro, president of CEMEX USA, said, “As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, we want you to know that CEMEX USA is closely monitoring the outbreak. We are following guidelines set forth by government and public health agencies, including the U.S. Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.
“At CEMEX, Health & Safety is our top priority. With recent concerns related to COVID-19 coronavirus, we want you to know what we’re doing to continue delivering a superior customer experience. We are actively monitoring the outbreak and taking measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. We have plans in place to address this evolving situation should it spread to any of our operations.
“To help ensure everyone’s well-being, CEMEX is following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). As of today, no CEMEX employees in the U.S. have been diagnosed with coronavirus.
“Our employees have been encouraged to follow social distancing and personal hygiene recommendations. In addition, they have been instructed to stay home if they are sick, avoid non-essential travel and avoid attending business-related events. We will continue to monitor this situation and take additional measures as needed.
“Our Management, Operations, Supply Chain and Commercial teams are working diligently, to the extent of their possibilities and in accordance with local and federal regulations, so that you do not suffer supply disruptions and provide you with the service you deserve.
“We want to keep our people healthy, so you get the cement, aggregates and ready-mix concrete you need, when you need it.”
Graniterock’s statement read in part, “We hope this finds Graniterock customers, colleagues and community members feeling healthy and safe. Over the course of 120 years we’ve survived a few crises. In our history, Graniterock has been tested by a host of natural disasters and economic downturns. We share everyone’s deep concern over the coronavirus. We also know where to focus in times of crisis. At Graniterock, we’re going to pour our talent and energy into taking care of our communities, our customers and our people. This has been our way since 1900.
“Graniterock quarries, plants and branches will remain open to provide the materials necessary for our customers to get this essential construction work done. This is consistent with state clarifications over the weekend that construction materials suppliers are part of the essential workforce. To protect our customers and the broader community, our teams will follow strictly the social distancing requirements issued by public health officials. We’ll insist our customers do the same. These measures include maintaining six feet of distance from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, avoiding shaking hands and others.
“We’re providing as much flexibility as possible for Graniterock people to do what is best for their families in this crisis. In addition to our strict social distancing approach where on-site work is required, we have asked our people to work from home whenever possible. For Graniterock people who need to care for family members, we’re providing a range of leave and time-off options and communicating regular updates on governmental policy changes that can help. Our highest priority is for Graniterock people to stay healthy and safe during these challenging times.
“Obviously this is a very fluid situation. As conditions change, our tactical approach may as well. But our values, and our focus in a time of crisis, will remain right where they’ve been for over 120 years. Take good care of yourselves and your families.”
In a letter to its business partners, Darin Matson, president and chief executive officer of Rogers Group, stated, “Rogers Group is pleased to announce that we are fully operational. We are executing our construction projects and producing and supplying materials from all aggregate facilities and asphalt plants.
“The health and safety of our employees, customers, vendors and communities is and always will be our top priority. During this time of concern, we are taking several precautionary steps to minimize staff contact while remaining accessible to all our partners. Temporarily we are limiting non-employee visits to our offices unless it is critical in nature and has been approved in advance by a site manager. In addition, our sales teams and other customer-centric employees will only be visiting customer offices upon their specific request. This is to insure we create a business environment that protects the health of our employees and business partners, while offering the service and support you have grown to expect from Rogers Group.
“The current events are fluid and changing daily, if not hourly. Our team members will continue to be in contact through a variety of means including phone, text, email, and video conferencing to keep you updated. However, as the situation evolves if you develop concerns or questions that may not have been addressed, I encourage you to reach out to your Rogers Group account representative.”
Taking Safety Seriously
As a lime producer, Graymont operates as an essential business critical to the supply chains and operations of life-sustaining products and services in the communities it serves.
In that context, Graymont has instituted the company’s pre-established pandemic plan to safely maintain production, modeled on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) workforce and customer protection guidance protocols. More specifically, Graymont is taking the following key actions:
- Social distancing has been implemented company wide.
- To minimize the potential spread of the virus, all employees are required to contact their managers before coming to work if they have reason to believe that they have been exposed to the virus or are showing symptoms. Such employees are not permitted to return to work until Graymont is satisfied that the risk of exposure is minimized, symptoms have cleared, or the employee is cleared to return to work by a medical practitioner.
- Employees involved in the manufacture and production of lime already wear personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators for specific tasks.
- Employees who can work from home are currently doing so. Where possible, Graymont is paying a portion of its workforce to remain at home on standby to assist Graymont’s efforts to maintain a healthy workforce and continue production as an essential business.
- Non-Graymont personnel (e.g. shippers, contractors and suppliers) are not permitted on premises or if they must enter, they are subject to screening. In some instances, carriers are restricted to staying in their vehicles.
- Enhanced hygiene and sanitation practices are in place at facilities.
- Training on recognition of symptoms for COVID-19, including how, when and where to report, is provided to employees in order to minimize risk of transmission.
- Employees are supported to access medical services to assess possible COVID-19 symptoms.
- Dedicated crisis teams are established to address issues as they arise.
Rock Products reached out to aggregates producers on social media to ask what they are doing at the plant level to ensure health and safety. Below are some of the comments:
“Our pit is doing mandatory masks and social distancing but really that’s not enough in my opinion.”
“Social distancing, face masks when we have to work close, no time clock, no break room straight to the equipment in the morning and to the vehicle in the evening, one person to a vehicle, disinfect vehicles, equipment and control rooms at beginning and end of every shift, scale house closed to the public and hourly employees, just put up outside ticket printers.”
“We are setting sales records with all this going on what better time to do road work when no one is on them?”
“We are trying to do social distancing and try and not to work too close. But when a belt needs repair or screens need to be changed its sort of impossible.”
“Plexiglass ‘Coronaguard’ in the office, reducing contact with drivers/customers, and social distancing.”
“No time clock, no early morning coffee meeting, no cab-to-cab switching unless absolutely necessary and we have Lysol in each cab. No working together hand-in-hand.”
“As an equipment dealer, we are cleaning the cabs of every machine that comes in our shop for free. We are also suggesting replacing cabin air filters. We are wiping down every cab, lever and handle in our rental inventory as well.”
“No one is to touch anyone else’s vehicle/equipment right now.”
A local company in Ohio, Premier Industrial Machine led by lime-producer Carmeuse owner Nick Koval, stepped forward to provide face shields for healthcare providers.
In order to produce the face shields, there is a need for materials. Carmeuse’s Maple Grove Operation in Ohio joined in the effort with Premier Industrial Machine by donating clear Polycarb plastic for the shields and HDPE natural plastic for the headbands.
With the support of Kevin Stevenson, site operation manager at the Maple Grove Operation, Nathaniel Freeborn took the lead to provide the two plastic products to Premier Industrial Machine.
According to Freeborn, “During this time, it is essential that each one of us do something to help those in need. Nick saw a need in our communities and seized the opportunity to make a difference. I am grateful that Carmeuse was able to help out.”
Nick Koval also expressed his gratitude in stating, “It is amazing to see the joy on their faces when we make a delivery to a nursing home.”
Deere & Co., in collaboration with the UAW, the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, has also started to produce protective face shields for health care workers in response to the COVID-19 health crisis.
Employees began production on April 8 at the John Deere Seeding Group in Moline, Ill. The factory manufactures planting equipment and precision ag solutions for a global customer base.
Deere expects to produce 25,000 face shields in the initial stages of production and has ordered materials and supplies to produce an additional 200,000 face shields.
Thirty-nine percent of contractors report that project owners have halted or canceled current construction projects amid deteriorating economic conditions, according to a survey released by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Association officials warned that these cancellations mean massive job losses are likely soon unless Congress passes targeted recovery measures to boost infrastructure funding, compensate firms for lost or delayed federally funded work and provide needed pension relief. The project cancellations are particularly severe in light of new data showing that 42 states added construction jobs through February.
“The abrupt plunge in economic activity is taking a swift and severe toll on construction,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist, noting that only 18% of respondents have been ordered to halt work by elected officials. “The sudden drop in demand stands in sharp contrast to the strong employment levels this industry was experiencing just a few weeks ago.”
With a high level of economic uncertainty hanging over the economy, one of the big stimulus ideas coming out of Congress, is a new infrastructure bill.
House Democrats released a “Moving Forward Framework” in its fight against the economic ravages of COVID-19/coronavirus that outlines a five-year, $760 billion investment to get our existing infrastructure working again, and fund new, transformative projects that will create more than 10 million jobs, while reducing carbon pollution, dramatically improving safety and spurring economic activity.
“It’s infrastructure investment that is “smarter, safer, and made to last,” they said.
“Make no mistake, this is an incredible economic blow to America,” said Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “What we have done has mitigated some of that damage. But we’re going to need a longer-term recovery package and we have to be more resilient in the future, which we can with this package. This is rebuilding America and preparing us for the 21st century in so many ways. We want to put people first, workers first, and nothing does that more than the investments we’re talking about here.”
President Trump has also signaled his support for a large-scale infrastructure bill that would act as a further stimulus on the heels of the government’s previously announced efforts.