COVID-19 Safety (Update)
Health-related concerns about exposure to common construction products like silica, lead and asbestos are well documented. Employers have the ability to easily identify these materials and establish work practices that reduce risk. Very specific regulations from EPA, HUD and OSHA can be followed to protect workers, occupants and the public from harm.
With coronavirus, our employers and workforce are dealing with a new health hazard in which we do not have the ability to immediately identify known exposure. Measurable and standardized safe work practices have yet to be identified. The volume of frequently changing information from federal, state and local safety and governing agencies is almost overwhelming to keep up with.
To better manage this pandemic situation, safety professionals from nearly 20 Oregon Columbia NECA-IBEW 48 contractors joined forces to network and collectively establish COVID-19 based policies, procedures and best practices to help keep our workforce healthy and maintain project productivity as best as possible. This workgroup also had participation from Los Angeles and Puget Sound NECA Safety Directors to better identify specific requirements to work in outlying areas from Portland.
Key topics the group focused on include:
- Training of workforce – what resources exist from CDC, OSHA and NECA and how to best apply them
- OSHA concerns – application of general duty clause, illness recordability/reportability and employee complaint response plans
- Documentation issues – written exposure control plans, project access pre-screening surveys, use of permit system for work that requires two or more people within six feet, social distancing and sanitation procedures, and notification of known virus exposure in the workplace
- PPE/OPE – sourcing of very limited personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies, clarifying use of covered face masks—mandatory or voluntary, options to minimize fogging of safety glasses caused by face mask use, face shields used as additional barriers for work within six feet of each other, application of misters and sprayers for disinfecting, and sanitating of tools and equipment
- Mental health – strategies to help improve morale and reduce stress, use of safety meetings, and NECA’s Stand Down to promote a positive end result for implementing work practices that will more quickly bring an end to this construction disruption
This group continues to meet weekly using an online platform and will focus on improving our current working conditions to the extent possible. They represent safety leadership not only for their direct employers, but for our industry as a whole.
NIETC Safety Director
As with any workplace hazard, employers should assess overall risk level based upon anticipated exposure range and the degree of injury or illness severity. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are forced to navigate unfamiliar territory complicated by the absence of formal safety standards, such as OSHA or ANSI, to specifically direct employer compliance actions.
The WHO, CDC, OSHA and NECA all provide excellent Coronavirus specific resources to educate employers and our workforce on what this new virus is, how it can affect our health, and most importantly, precautions we can take to reduce potential exposures in all settings of life.
While under specific State mandated orders, certain business types have been forced to close to limit spread of the virus, it appears that many of our construction projects will continue to remain open, at least for now. Whether we have multiple crews working on a large-scale project, or just a few workers on a small service job, the strategies to protect our workforce, and prevent the spread of the virus, are fairly universal.
- Infectious disease policy development – contractors should establish and document the specific actions each business unit – office, pre-fab, service, construction site etc. – will follow moving forward. Key elements the policy should contain are employee illness response protocol, suspected exposure reporting, means to limit group activities, sanitation procedures and PPE use. OSHA has just released an employer guide #3990 which can help in this process.
- Employee training and education – Effective employee training on policy requirements and employer / client expectations is crucial for work practice uniformity. The training should be documented and repeated as necessary when noncompliant actions are observed in the workplace, or new procedures are introduced. NECA produced a good Coronavirus toolbox talk that can also be used in your overall training efforts.
- Hand washing and overall general hygiene – This cannot be overemphasized with your teams. Construction projects can be dirty and have historically struggled with providing employees suitable toilet and hand washing facilities. As such, frequent hand washing with preferably soap and water, or a sufficient supply of hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available, is critical. Toilets must be cleaned and sanitized more often, including all commonly touched surfaces such as toilet seats and door handles. Sharing of hand and power tools, including arc and shock rated PPE, should be eliminated and when necessary, thoroughly cleaned between uses. Employees should use tissues or their sleeved arm when sneezing and focus on not touching their face.
- Group meetings, crew size and social distancing – Work related activities such as stretch-and-flex, safety meetings, gathering for lunch and breaks are now considered high risk and must be managed accordingly. Current recommendations limit work groups to preferably 10 people or less AND only when the setting allows for social distancing from each other of at least 6 feet. This makes it nearly impossible for 2 workers to be in the same scissor lift, service truck, vault etc. Additionally, employers are directed to maximize work from home protocols for office workers and social distancing for those employees who must remain in the office. If the social distancing option is used, a designated persons(s) should be identified to audit group sizing and effectiveness of minimum spacing protocols.
- PPE use – If your company policy or site-specific requirements do not already mandate donning of safety gloves and glasses, you should implement those actions now. The CDC is currently NOT recommending that healthy people wear respiratory protection such as N95 or half face masks. If employees choose to voluntarily wear such PPE, keep in mind that OSHA requires that they be provided with Appendix D I would also recommend documenting such activity.
As we continue to respond to this rapidly changing event, you are likely to encounter additional site-specific protocols such as pre-screening workers before being allowed onto the job site. The EEOC has recently recognized this activity as acceptable in light of the virus reaching pandemic status.
If you need more information or I can provide assistance in any manner, please contact me.
NIETC Safety Director