Tips for Working Safely in Construction During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Assessing risk level and ensuring workers have proper PPE are key steps to maintaining construction worker safety during this time.
- By Shari Franklin Smith
- Dec 01, 2020
The construction industry, like many others, may be considering additional requirements and steps to help protect workers from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This novel coronavirus is currently believed to spread from person to person when an infected person’s respiratory droplets, perhaps from coughing, sneezing or talking, land in others’ eyes, nose or mouth. The CDC indicates that being within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes of an infected person’s respiratory emissions increases others’ chances of receiving enough virus to potentially be infected. Another possible route of infection is airborne transmission. According to the CDC, “there is evidence that under certain conditions, people with COVID-19 seem to have infected others who were more than 6 feet away.” Another route, though not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, is contact with infected surfaces and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth.
Many internationally recognized organizations such as OSHA, WHO, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU OSHA), American Industrial Hygiene Association (AHIA) and the CDC have also published updated guidance.
The CDC, OSHA, and AIHA have created guidance specifically addressing the construction industry. Key points from the CDC guidance for construction include:
- Encourage sick workers to stay home.
- Encourage workers who are well with sick family members to follow CDC precautions.
- Limit close contact with other people.
- Develop and implement a social distancing plan to maintain at least 6 feet of separation.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects, including shared tools, machines, vehicles, ladders, portable toilets, etc.
- Limit tool sharing.
- Practice proper hand hygiene.
- Provide training on symptoms, risks for severe illness.
- Provide proper training on handwashing and make available hand washing stations or hand sanitizer with at least 60 perent strength alcohol.
- Encourage the use of face coverings in addition to social/physical distancing. Note that face coverings do not replace respiratory protection, where hazards dictate respirator use.
Additional engineering and administrative controls for construction sites may include:
- Installing posters encouraging staying home if sick and demonstrating cough and sneeze etiquette as well as proper hand hygiene, hand washing.
- Designate a COVID-19 safety and health officer responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns.
- Install shields and barriers where possible.
- Restrict access or limit capacity in enclosed areas such as elevators, trailers, small spaces, shared vehicles and break areas.
- Modify work schedules to stagger trades, or minimize mixing of shifts.
- Limit in person meetings, or ensure people can spread out 6 feet or more between attendees.
- Conduct hazard assessments to determine any additional PPE required and provide the related training.
- Understand your site’s local health requirements and levels of community outbreaks.
Recently published guidelines from AIHA, “Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19”, provide additional construction specific guidance. These further guidelines include strategies to help reduce and control COVID-19 related hazards in construction environments. This guidance includes the following:
- How to develop a COVID-19 site control plan.
- How to incorporate the key elements required in the plan (source reduction and screening, social distancing controls, engineering and administrative controls, hygiene stations and disinfection measures and PPE.)
- How to conduct a COVID-19 specific job safety analysis.
U.S. OSHA Risk Levels
OSHA has provided additional guidance on exposure risk levels for COVID-19. In OSHA’s “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID19,” a control banding approach is provided based on levels of risk exposure to SARS-CoV-2. Levels include Low, Medium, High and Very High. OSHA anticipates that most construction work will be low or medium risk, with some opportunities for high risk tasks.
OSHA applied these risk categories in their construction specific guidance. Low risks tasks include those that allow workers to maintain 6 feet of separation and have little contact with customers, visitors or the public. Medium risk tasks include tasks where workers may need to work within 6 feet of each other or have contact with visitors, customers or the public. High risk tasks include “entering an indoor work site occupied by people such as other workers, customers, or residents suspected of having or known to have COVID-19, including when an occupant of the site reports signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19.” High risk activities could include work in hospitals with known or suspected cases of COVID-19. Very high risks involved in health care procedures are not likely to occur in construction.
Additional PPE Considerations for Construction Job Sites
For low risk tasks, OSHA recommends, “Most construction workers are unlikely to need PPE beyond what they use to protect themselves during routine job tasks. Such PPE may include a hard hat, gloves, safety glasses and a face mask.” For medium risk tasks where administrative and engineering controls may not adequately protect workers, adequate PPE should be provided. This may include gloves, eye protection, and/or face shields. For close contact tasks within 6 feet of someone suspected or confirmed with a case of COVID-19, respiratory protection may be needed. The Center for Construction Research and Training’s (CWPR’s) COVID19 Standards for US Construction Sites recommends an N95 or higher respiratory protection for close contact in enclosed spaces.
When workers need PPE, employers must comply with all applicable workplace standards and regulations on selection and use of PPE. One example is OSHA's standard for PPE in construction (29 CFR 1926 Subpart E), which requires employees to use gloves, eye and face protection and respiratory protection when job hazards warrant it. OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard 29 CFR 1910.134 mandates that when respirators are necessary to protect workers, employers must implement a comprehensive respiratory protection program.
As the CDC recommends face coverings as a public health measure, employers may want a better understanding of the differences between cloth face coverings and respirators. It is important to note that according OSHA, “Cloth face masks are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) and are not intended to be used when workers need PPE for protection against exposure to occupational hazards.”
To help maintain at least 6 feet of separation, safety managers and employers may also want to consider communication devices which protect hearing and have integrated radios for communication that can help workers to communicate while maintaining their distance from each other.
Social distancing graphics can help provide important visual reminders. Employers may want to expand the use of floor graphics, signs and stickers to help promote physical distancing on worksites.
Disinfection, Decontamination and Cleaning of PPE
Per the CDC guidelines for construction, disinfection of reusable PPE is recommended at least at the beginning and end of each shift.9 Training should be provided to workers on cleaning PPE according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You should always check with the PPE manufacturer about all cleaning, disinfection and decontamination methods for reusable PPE. There is guidance available from the U.S. CDC for cleaning and disinfection practices in the workplace.
Additionally, employers should consider using or switching to disinfectant cleaners that meet the U.S. EPA’s Emerging Pathogen Policy. These sanitizers may be considered for use against the virus which causes COVID-19 on non-critical, hard, non-porous surfaces that may be found in the workplace. Employers should be aware that common sanitizers and disinfectants could contain hazardous chemicals. Where workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals, employers must comply with OSHA's Hazard Communication standard (29 CFR 1910.1200) or other applicable regional/local regulations, Personal Protective Equipment standards (Ex. 29 CFR 1926 Subpart E in construction or 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I in general industry) and other applicable OSHA chemical standards. Employers should also consult OSHA’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 for more information.
There are many factors that need to be considered when it comes to COVID-19 and protecting your workforce. Seek out a reputable PPE manufacturer that can help you select the right products and solutions to help maintain a safe workplace for all the different tasks being performed on your jobsites.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.