Click here to bypass page layout and jump directly to story.=

UC Berkeley >

University of California

News Extras






  Press Releases

  Image Downloads



University examines the effects of construction on health

By Steve Lustig

Renewing the Foundations of Excellence

Steve LustigTwo unavoidable truths go along with construction, be it in your home, neighborhood or workplace. First, it may be disruptive to life as it had been. No matter how well you plan for it, you will probably be disrupted in more ways than you ever anticipated. Second, construction projects almost never follow the original timeline, even when you factor in the unknowns.

In your personal life, you can weigh the inconvenience against the benefits, and you may decide that the hassle is worth it. But at work, very likely someone else is making the decision. And, although overall improvements may result, the construction might not bring noticeable improvements to your workspace in the short run. Then how do you feel about the disruption?

To improve the experience of faculty and staff coping with a workplace under construction, a campus workgroup is assessing the employee's perspective and working to address frustrations. The workgroup represents the departments that commonly receive phone calls from faculty and staff when construction projects cause disruption. These departments include University Health Services; Environment, Health & Safety; Office of Human Resources; Staff Ombuds, and Capital Projects.

As a group, we bring various individual and departmental viewpoints and expertise to the table as we tackle questions like: What changes and challenges do faculty and staff experience each day when construction affects the work they are doing, the building they work in, the building next door, or the paths/roads they use? What are the lessons we have learned from past construction projects that we can apply to the next 20 years of construction? What haven't we thought of yet that will make construction a more tolerable experience?

In answer to these questions, we have learned, not surprisingly, that people have trouble working amid noise, dust, mess, lighting problems and disorganization. Relocation to a temporary space has its own issues, such as isolation from staff, students and faculty in the old location. We have learned that people react differently to disruption; some have more difficulties than others, but that almost everyone fares better when they understand what is happening.

We have learned that people do better when they have some control over their circumstances; e.g., a voice in alternate plans or some flexibility in their work schedules. We have learned some of the hard facts of construction budgets - that they are funded out of specific pots of money for the costs of construction only; and some of the hard facts of departmental budgets - that they don't always cover the human or financial resources necessary to address emotional, work and relationship problems that may exist due to disruption from construction. The needs of the workplace and requirements of a construction project can sometimes conflict. It's the pull of these competing and parallel tracks that challenge the faculty and staff in their daily experience to balance their work with the needs of construction projects in their departments.

We have also learned that addressing faculty and staff health concerns about construction can be complicated because, while project crews are usually working under applicable industrial health and safety laws and guidelines, these guidelines primarily address health and safety hazards and do not eliminate the impact of disruption. The physical and emotional health effects some people feel may not clinically be attributable directly to construction. We have learned that addressing some of the predictable concerns in the early stages of a project can lessen the development of some physical and emotional symptoms down the road and that the way our departments respond to these concerns can have an impact.

Renewing the foundations of excellence on campus presents many challenges for our community, even when we know that much of the construction is for the good of the whole. For example, seismic improvements increase the safety of those who work in and walk by the building. These improvements may not immediately translate into a more attractive or functional personal space, but we found that faculty and staff do appreciate the increased personal safety.

Finally, we have a growing vision of what it means and what it takes to build a healthy building. As the group identifies elements of physical infrastructure that benefit the health of faculty and staff, it works with campus planners to integrate these elements into the planning process.

As we gather information about the human side of construction and identify possibilities for improvement, we are formulating recommendations, translating our discussions into work with faculty and staff in affected buildings, and planning new ways to work together to ease disruptions caused by construction. And we're still looking for helpful suggestions. What haven't we thought of yet that will make being under construction a more tolerable experience? Contact the following workgroup departments if you have something to add:

Capital Projects: 643-4793
Environment, Health & Safety: 642-4848
Office of Human Resources: 642-7163
Staff Ombuds Office: 642-7823
University Health Services: 642-6621

Steve Lustig is the assistant vice chancellor, University Health and Counseling Services, and chairman of the campus's health and construction workgroup.

Renewing the Foundations of Excellence home

Source: Berkeleyan Special Issue, Fall 2000