College halts construction projects as worker raises safety concerns

Irene Loewenson, Managing Editor

Construction on the North Science Building project, along with the Fort Bradshaw project, has been suspended. One worker on the project had told iBerkshires.com that other workers had been exposed to someone with COVID-19. (Danny Jin/The Williams Record)

The College paused construction on the North Science Building and Fort Bradshaw projects on Friday, at the same time that iBerkshires.com was writing a story in which an anonymous worker voiced concerns about the projects’ potential for the spread of COVID-19. Representatives for the College said that the decision was made to protect the safety of workers and to comply with directives from the government.

The iBerkshires.com article by Stephen Dravis, published online on Friday afternoon, reports that a man identified only as “Bob” contacted iBerkshires.com on Thursday morning. Bob, a worker employed by one of the subcontractors on the North Science project, took issue with aspects of a different iBerkshires.com article published early Thursday morning.

The article published on Thursday reported that an employee of Comalli Group, one of the subcontractors working on the project, had tested positive for COVID-19. Comalli Group had said that the employee in question had not been working on the College’s construction projects and that only two people working on the projects had come into contact with him, according to the article.

“It’s true that the Comalli employee was never on the job site,” Bob wrote in his initial email to iBerkshires.com. “What they didn’t tell you is that Comalli had a company training which the infected employee and all their workers attended. So he obviously was in close contact with everyone in that room.”

Representatives for Comalli Group could not be reached for comment.

Bob also contended that social distancing measures cannot work effectively on construction sites, which he compared to “a Petri dish.”

“I find it laughable when they say, ‘If you wash your hands and use social-distancing, you’ll be fine,’” he told iBerkshires.com. “The six-foot rule doesn’t work in construction, ever. It’s a little aggravating to me.”

On Thursday morning, iBerkshires.com requested comment from the College about Bob’s email; by the time the article was published on Friday afternoon, the College had not responded.

But on Friday at 5:04 p.m., Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Fred Puddester sent an all-campus email announcing the suspension of construction as of the end of the day.

“Neither of the firms managing these two projects have reported any positive cases of COVID-19 on either work site,” he wrote.

The iBerkshires.com article went up 24 minutes later, at 5:28 p.m., at first without mentioning that construction had been suspended. A 6:04 update to the article noted that iBerkshires.com had been forwarded Puddester’s email at 5:53 p.m.

“Until we are confident that construction can safely proceed in a manner consistent with state directives, and working with local inspection officials, construction is suspended,” Puddester wrote in an email to the Record.

In response to a follow-up email specifically asking whether the suspension of construction had been motivated by the concerns Bob raised, Puddester wrote, “Our primary concerns are health, safety and compliance with guidance and directives from government officials.”

When asked about the decision to halt construction, Rita Coppola-Wallace, executive director for planning, design and construction at the College, also pointed to “the safety and health of the construction workers and the Governor’s directives.”

Responding to a follow-up email about which particular directives informed the decision, Coppola-Wallace referred the Record to a Wednesday, March 25, order by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

“It speaks to guidelines and procedures that all construction projects in the Commonwealth must follow,” she wrote. “The College is adhering to those protocols.”

The order declares that all construction projects “should continue as long as they observe social distancing protocols and otherwise can continue to operate safely.”