The effects of the pandemic on our campus research ecosystem are diverse. In his guest blog, construction mechanic Tom Polkinghorn tells how facilities kept their doors open during the pandemic.
I’m one of the many building mechanics here on campus. As with many other agencies, our roles and responsibilities have changed with the COVID-19 outbreak. This position work from home? To the right.
Why not? The main duties of a building mechanic include maintaining all of the operations and maintenance of the buildings while performing almost all of the tasks assigned through our facilities work order system. Each mechanic has a specific area of coverage; mine are, for example, the Dow Environmental Sciences and Engineering Building and the Great Lakes Research Center. While no one was around to assign us work during the pandemic, building maintenance remained our core business – and we found plenty to do.
Challenge: Mechanics always find the bucket
Building systems and equipment require constant, daily attention to operate effectively. Many things can go wrong with the HVAC, plumbing, front doors, roofs, windows, lighting, etc. of a building. Fast reactions save time and money, but also offer security for the campus community.
We walk through the machine rooms every day, take care of the operation of the devices and can usually tell by sight, smell or sound when a system fails – an impossible task from home! Too often, our building inspections present us with our challenge for the rest of the day or even longer. On many occasions I pause and think, “That’s not how I imagined driving to work this morning!”
Mechanics can’t be pinned in one place for too long as other building challenges don’t come up. If the correction time becomes too long or the repair requires specialized skills, we assign the work to our Facility Trades department. You take good care of us all. The mechanic needs to be in constant communication with all building systems in order to be clear about what is required of all devices every day. Think of our position as a constant review of the operating systems over and over again.
The definition of the mechanic position has certainly changed during the pandemic. At first, we stayed home with the rest or the majority of the university community, eagerly awaiting further instructions and answers. “Who is considered essential? How long do we stay at home? What is the plan? Is there a plan? “It was hard to sit at home and speculate about what might happen in the buildings in the first few weeks. We’re the front line of equipment operations, and without us the maintenance process goes from proactive to reactive. Common mechanic quotes are: “If only I had come earlier” or “Wow, what would have happened if THAT had gone unnoticed?”
If a leak starts and someone puts a bucket under it, it’s my job to find the bucket before the whole hall is flooded. We are not always in the right place and at the right time, but sooner is better than later. Okay, you get it: mechanics can’t work from home.
My first day back was April 1st and I was stupidly curious about what I would find in the buildings. No wonder that the mechanics were also charged with cleaning the toilets and touchpoints, collecting garbage and later opening the front door. While it made sense since we were the only employees, it was an additional challenge to catch up on our own work.
The extra cleaning chores weren’t entirely impossible as there was simply no one around to clean up afterwards. Seeing another person was an unusual but pleasant surprise. I had to skip some preventive maintenance tasks at first, but was able to catch up on the most important problems without wasting a lot of time. My building cover did pretty well, with the exception of a few leaks in the heating water system (think back to the mechanics’ quotes). Some other mechanics – maybe not so lucky. It’s all our turn. After the third week of initial closure under our governor’s orders, I was greeted every Monday through the 7th.
Solution: Learn from the wrong times
Under the same conditions, it is not difficult to think about what to do in a future pandemic. If everything was repeated exactly all over again, we would jump right into the best-practice, effective practice and skip the wrong branches. This also corresponds to the philosophy of the construction mechanic position.
We keep doing tasks in our buildings and we know what works to keep operations going year after year. However, most conditions are not always exactly the same, so we adapt to the variables. “Wow, why doesn’t it work like it used to? Let’s try this. No – take a wrong turn. I think we know we shouldn’t go there now. ”
Wrong turns of phrase can be great learning tools. The point is, we begin by repeating successful procedures while looking for new variables. Experience right? What has been done can always be done better, especially when it is well practiced. Let’s hope we haven’t done well in dealing with pandemics – but let’s plan anyway.
We have all been challenged with COVID-19. We need to make sure there are guides in place to help us find the right path faster as this pandemic evolves – and also in the event of future pandemics.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in Houghton, Michigan in 1885 and home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries worldwide. The university is consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, offering more than 125 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science and technology, engineering, computer science, forestry, economics, health professionals, humanities, math, social sciences, and the Arts. Located just a few miles from Lake Superior on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the rural campus offers year-round outdoor adventure opportunities.