As states across the country gear up for a phased “Re-Opening” of America, the construction industry – slated by many state leaders to be among the first businesses to get the green light on resuming operations after non-essential shutdowns – may serve as a model for other industries looking to protect workers’ against the coronavirus, comply with evolving workplace safety regulations, and get back to a new “normal.”
To help lead the way, OSHA recently issued a safety alert providing guidance to employers on ways to reduce exposure risks among the construction workforce.
The Construction Workforce COVID-19 Guidance, like other alerts issued by OSHA during the pandemic, includes well-established protocols for risk management, including encouragement of social distancing, personal hygiene, and staying at home if workers feel sick.
OSHA outlines other preventative measures its new guidance, including recommendations for employers to:
- Provide access to soap and water for handwashing, when possible, or alcohol-based hand rubs that contain at least 60% alcohol.
- Limit in-person meetings, including daily briefings and toolbox talks, keep meetings as short as possible, and limit the number of meeting attendees.
- Use EPA-approved cleaning chemicals from List N, or which have label claims against coronavirus to regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched items (door pulls, toilet seats, etc.).
- Instruct workers on proper sanitization of shared tools or equipment using alcohol-based wipes in accordance to manufacturer-recommended cleaning techniques.
- Encourage the use of masks, and train workers to properly put on and remove protective clothing and equipment.
Could COVID-19 Change the Future of Construction?
While OSHA’s Construction Workforce Guidance is relatively simple in scope, many employers in the construction industry are working through their own ways to manage worksite exposure risks and maximize their ability to complete projects on time.
In New York City, the epicenter of America’s coronavirus crisis, for example, employers are already implementing and proposing precautions that may very well change how worksite safety is defined in the foreseeable future. As The New York Times reports, a number of NYC worksites are:
- Enhancing site security and entry / access controls, often with the use of secured perimeters, turnstiles, and security check-in procedures.
- Staggering work schedules to that workers come onto sites in phases, rather than all at once.
- Using infrared thermal scans to check workers’ temperatures before work begins.
- Adopting new protocols for handling deliveries, including having cargo unloaded by designated workers while delivery drivers remain in their vehicles.
- Installing more hand-washing stations and running water on work sites.
- Limiting daily huddles and encouraging workers to avoid congregating during breaks.
Though these steps are in line with OSHA guidelines, construction is an industry that, traditionally, is largely incompatible with social distancing. Worksites are often filled with many contractors and workers, and tasks like framing a structure, performing lifts, or installing materials often requires multiple workers to perform jobs close together.
Though these are challenges inherent to the nature of construction work, some employers see solutions in supply chains, including pre-fabricating and assembling certain parts or materials before they are delivered to worksites and installed by as few workers as possible.
Others are focusing on the use of technology to better manage oversight and containment efforts, including the use of thermal scanners that remotely detect if workers have a fever (rather than using hand-held thermometers) or fitting hard hats with devices that track workers’ movements, and alert them when they get within 6 feet of another co-worker. These and other tools can be used to compiled data that helps modify worksites to best promote social distancing.
Additionally, some construction developers and lobbyists are pushing for legislative changes that will help them ensure compliance in a difficult industry. This includes proposals to amend local laws so that 24/7 work is permitted for construction projects, and workers can perform their jobs in shifts that reduce the number of people on sites at one time. In many states, construction is only permitted on weekdays between day time hours (usually 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.).
While it remains to be seen what the construction industry will do to innovate during these difficult times, it’s undeniable that doing so will be a challenge. At Hendershot Cowart P.C., our attorneys are available to help employers across Houston, the state of Texas and beyond in matters of OSHA law and construction law. If you have questions, please contact us to speak with an attorney.