Construction workers adopt new practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19
March 31, 2020 – The rapid spread of COVID-19 has necessitated a new approach to safety on construction sites.
Despite the existing regulations and safety culture within the construction industry, contractors have been confronted with a sudden need to implement new safety practices. Some have rapidly developed best practices and even innovative approaches to continuing essential construction activities while providing heightened protection to workers.
Deemed as essential businesses, the construction industry is taking necessary measures to continue to serve clients from implementing social distancing practices to mandating new hygiene rules and monitoring employees’ health and simply educating workers about COVID-19.
Social distancing onsite
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staying at least six feet away from another person can keep an individual out of range of infectious, airborne droplets. Given the rapid spread of COVID-19 and its track record of not producing obvious symptoms in some people, infectious disease experts are urging Americans to assume than anyone could be infected.
But how do you maintain a six-foot distance on a construction site?
“Some GCs we work with throughout the country have made big changes to their construction schedules,” said Justin Heddinger, Field Operations Manager for Diversified Safety Services.
To reduce the density of workers on a site, some contractors have split crews in half and scheduled each half to come in on alternate days. Others have staggered schedules throughout the day to avoid having multiple trades working within the same space. Most are strictly limiting the total number of individuals on site at any time, especially within construction trailers, enclosed work areas and lifts, Heddinger said.
Workers who have to operate in closer proximity, can protect themselves by wearing a mask. But that precaution can be difficult to achieve. Workers face a severe shortage of N95 masks (which are badly needed by healthcare workers). Because those masks restrict air flow, workers also need to be trained to use them.
In situations where workers can’t be properly distanced or shielded, Heddinger suggests contractors postpone work.
New rules for hygiene
The CDC’s other two primary rules about containing the spread of COVID-19 – namely, wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face – have also prompted changes on construction sites. In addition to placing hand-sanitizer dispensers around sites, contractors are installing soap-and-water hand-washing stations
“Instead of putting those wash areas inside the trailer where you would draw people into an enclosed area, contractors are putting them outside where workers can clean their hands in an open area and not be exposed to other people,” Heddinger said.
Live Green Landscape Associates, for example, installed a station outside its office and asks individuals to wash their hands before entering.
Since COVID-19 can live for roughly 24 hours on many solid surfaces, construction workers must also take precautions when handling materials and equipment.
“We have pushed guys for years to wear their gloves when they do material handling. Now, they are paying attention to that practice. I haven’t seen anybody working without a pair of gloves in weeks,” said Terry Horrocks, a site inspector with Diversified Safety Services.
Monitoring worker health
The rapid spread of COVID-19 also means that contractors need to more closely monitor workers’ health and enforce precautions. Some contractors, including Plano-Coudon Construction, are requiring workers to complete a short questionnaire before gaining access to a site. Based on CDC guidelines, it asks if the individual has developed any flu-like symptoms, travelled internationally in recent weeks or been in contact with anyone suspected of being infected. Some contractors are conducting temperature checks at the beginning of each shift. Finally, all contractors need to enforce a policy that workers must stay home if they develop any symptoms associated with COVID-19 – fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, body aches, chills or fatigue.
“Guys who would have worked though a cold six months ago, can’t now,” Horrocks said. “If you have symptoms, assume it’s COVID-19 and stay home until you’re better. The CDC’s recommendation is you have to experience 72 hours with no symptoms and no medications before you go back to work.”
The most important and impactful thing that contractors can do right now is provide their employees with solid information from the CDC about the nature of COVID-19 and how it spreads, said Horrocks, who has conducted multiple briefing sessions with construction crews in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Plano-Coudon has distributed a COVID-19 toolbox talk to its superintendents to provide to crews on their sites.
“There is a lot of misinformation out on the Internet,” ranging from inaccurate reports to junk science theories to memes about home remedies, he said. That misinformation has prompted Horrocks to caution workers that social media is not the authoritative source of information about a global pandemic.
Workers need to understand that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets, which can be emitted through coughs or sneezes. To spread the disease, those droplets need to make contact with the eyes, nose or mouth of another person. Understanding those two core facts are key to helping workers understand how to protect themselves.