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Q&A: How to Build a $1.9 Billion Stadium Safely

Aug 17, 2020
Construction equipment in front of a teal background

The highly anticipated Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas is finished. Enormous and climate-controlled, with a capacity to hold 65,000 people, the venue took more than 5 million craft hours to complete.

But as with all projects this year — particularly in the live entertainment industry — COVID-19 has challenged everyone’s ideas about how to work safely, communicate effectively and open the doors responsibly.

We spoke with Carina Sowinski, a safety engineer with general contractor Mortenson, a few weeks ago, right before her job was about to end. We discussed what it’s like to advocate for workers on a massive scale, navigate an uncertain public health environment and cultivate a supportive safety culture.

ASSP: Tell us about Allegiant Stadium. What is it, and how did you come on board with the project?

Carina: I started in February 2018, which is amazing considering it feels like yesterday that I arrived on the job site for the first time. Allegiant Stadium is approximately a $1.9 billion project that is the future home of the NFL Raiders and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas football team. It’s more of a multipurpose venue than a stadium that's just for football games. There will be different kinds of community events and different headliners — people like Garth Brooks and Beyoncé.

ASSP: Can you describe what it looks like for those who haven’t seen it?

Carina: Our first two levels are structural concrete. After that it’s structural steel. We have roof canopies, which make up the modules, then we have cables that span across, roof canopy to roof canopy. ETFE [ethylene tetrafluoroethylene] is on top of those cables, which creates a translucent membrane. You're able to see where the sun is, but you'll always be comfortable inside the stadium.

It's gotten a lot of attention for its exterior aesthetics. It has a retractable natural grass playing field in the south end of the stadium, so the grass actually grows outside. That was really important to the Raiders. They wanted natural grass so that their football players could still be covered in mud and grass stains. I feel like that’s the true tell of a football game.

ASSP: Your firm reported several COVID-19 cases on the construction site in April. How has our current public health crisis affected you and your team, and how have you responded?

Carina: Mortenson takes pride in being the best builder. It's been challenging because we were intentional about how we set up this project and how the safety system was going to be managed. Then, the pandemic threw us a curveball.

We have relied on experts to give us information about to what to do and how to respond appropriately. For example, an on-site sanitation crew conducted our health screenings. We required face coverings on site well before they were required in Nevada.

We had over 2,000 people on our job site in April. We actively shared information, and it was changing every day. Prior to the pandemic, every team member met in the morning and got the safety message, and information on logistics and hot items. It was only about 5 minutes, but it really did a lot to get information out to everybody.

Then, almost overnight, we couldn’t gather a group of more than 10 workers. That really changed the way we had to do things and it made communication difficult. Many team members didn’t have access to a cell phone, so we had to be extremely creative as to how we got this information out.

Everybody has different opinions on COVID-19. You hear about people who don't want to wear face coverings, and we have had similar situations with employees on the job site. We had to reiterate that this was really the best thing for our job to continue moving forward. We didn't shut down. We were open every single day during the pandemic and were constantly upgrading.

ASSP: What were some of the creative methods you used to ensure that everyone was getting your safety messages?

Carina: Each employee had a badge that was activated when they come through a turnstile. That enabled us to send mass text messages to everyone with an active badge on the job site. We shared our daily notes with updates. We also sent more formal letters to our trade partner leaders and encouraged them to share that information with their employees.

Having a field presence was the best way to not only share information but also to reassure people. Prior to the pandemic, we had a great culture. While the pandemic didn't diminish that, it rocked the boat a little bit because people wanted to make sure they were still being provided a safe, healthy work environment. Employees had concerns and frustrations. But we looked to them for insight to understand what would make them feel healthy and safe, then we implemented measures to address their feedback.

ASSP: Based on what you’ve learned, what advice would you give others who are working to protect construction workers from the virus and complete projects on schedule and on budget right now?

Carina: It is definitely a tough situation for anyone responsible for implementing COVID-19 measures on their projects. I'm always looking for advice and innovative ideas, too. But I would tell others to be transparent and listen. Listen to your employees. Listen to the customer. Then ultimately, just continue to do what's right. That's one of our core values — just do what's right. That's how we navigated this time of uncertainty.

There are definitely levels of skepticism in the world right now with COVID-19. It’s important to be transparent and take employee concerns seriously. Listen to workers and do whatever it takes to make the environment better.

And while we all talk about budgets, the health of our employees has been our top priority. So, I would advise others to have a plan, create a budget off of the plan and don't go too far off of your plan without understanding why.

ASSP: Did any recent technological advancements help make your job easier?

Carina: We have somebody who oversaw all of our technology on the job site. He's always looking at innovations. We used a lot of BIM [building information modeling]. Drones are amazing, and we used them for all of our logistics maps in order to communicate information like access, muster points and where important things are on the job. Imagine going to Disney World and using a wayfinding map. We had those for everyone so that they were able to understand which areas were open, which areas were closed, which areas were safe. We used those for logistics coordination between trades.

Our badging process was awesome. We always knew who was on-site and when. We were able to send mass text messages through the system, which helped us with communication, especially after we were unable to meet as a group. That's how we tracked our accountability process as well.

For COVID-19 we also used a text message permitting process. For different kinds of hot work or other questions, employees were able to send a text to all of the Mortenson/McCarthy safety professionals, who would help them address their concerns.

ASSP: Your bio says you are passionate about the fundamentals of task hazard analysis, accountability, planning and craft engagement. Can you share a bit more about that? How and why do those things drive you?

Carina: Safety professionals on large job sites have a lot of responsibilities, which can be overwhelming. You can start to focus on a thousand things, then ultimately do none of them well. To be intentional, we planned our focus areas before we went into the ground: task hazard analysis, accountability, planning and craft engagement. They complement each other and provide a well-rounded safety program and culture.

Everyone can quickly understand these focus areas and how they ultimately create the safest and best job site. When there is a plan, everyone is accountable to the plan, and where there is continuous improvement in our craft engagement, it helps a lot. Ultimately, these things drive me because I think they really matter. They are the fundamentals that help send people home safely.

ASSP: How does it feel to be at the end of the project? Does it seem real yet?

Carina: No. We give the keys to the owner soon and it doesn't seem real. It feels like we’re going to continue building it forever, even though we’re now done. I don't think it's clicked in my head yet that it's over.

ASSP: Going back to issues surrounding COVID-19: It sounds like there are still some decisions to be made around how many football fans and concertgoers will be invited into the stadium once it opens. Do you think safety and health professionals have a responsibility to advocate for face coverings, physical distancing and other COVID-19 controls – even outside their job sites?

Carina: I feel like we should always set the example inside and outside of work. However, a lot of these things depend on where you live and what your social circle looks like. There are so many complex factors for COVID-19 that I think sometimes it gets oversimplified, and we really just need to make sure that as safety professionals, we're continuing to investigate and get a greater understanding of COVID-19 — how it affects us and how it affects our role. We don’t want COVID-19 to stop or distract us from looking at present and real hazards that are occurring in the work environment. For example, if we only prioritize our COVID-19 response, we might not be as focused on fall protection or making sure that we are providing the best PPE possible, that safety glasses aren't fogging up because of workers’ face coverings.

Safety professionals need to be creative in our new world and ensure that traditional safety training is still occurring in the work environment at the same, if not greater, frequency throughout this pandemic.

ASSP: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Carina: More than 11,000 people helped build this safety culture and this safety program. I'm grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to talk about all of the hard work this group has done. It’s nice for safety professionals to be able to share and learn from what went right just as often as we learn from our incident investigations.

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