The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a new, dedicated COVID-19 webpage to help make construction workplaces and sites as safe and healthy as possible. It is aimed at employers and employees in the construction industry who might be exposed to SARS-CoV-2 while working.
Construction employees affected include those employed as carpenters, welders, plumbers, electricians, as well as those doing concrete and masonry work (including bricklaying), earthmoving activities, and work that relates to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC), for instance in the workplaces of those offering HVAC engineering services in Chicago, New York, and other cities.
The page also contains an outline of the mandatory health and safety standards that relate to construction workplaces. They emphasize that there are no new legal obligations, but rather, the information contains advisory recommendations that are informational and intended to help employers in the sector to provide a safe, healthy work environment.
OSHA recommends that both workers and employers stay aware and updated about outbreak conditions, especially as they apply to the community spread of the virus. Employers should implement all possible measures to prevent infection. The Administration also advises employers to adapt the guidelines provided to meet the evolving risk levels in the workplace, particularly as regions and US states open up after lockdown. In general:
- Assess the hazards workers might be exposed to.
- Evaluate the various risks of this exposure.
- Select and implement the best controls to prevent exposure in your environment and make certain your employees know how to use them.
Exposure Risk Levels for Construction Work
Some construction work tasks carry much higher risks of exposure than others, so OSHA has created an exposure risk pyramid that can be used by employers as a guide to optimal health and safety in their specific workplaces.
They suggest undertaking a job hazard analysis to determine how closely workers and others (including customers and visitors) need to be to do the job required. This is in keeping with the need for social distancing in every situation, not just the construction industry.
- Lower (caution): Tasks that allow workers to remain at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart are considered low risk and only require caution because they involve minimal contact with other people.
- Medium: These tasks require workers to be within 6 feet or 1.8 meters from each other or other people. This is considered to be “close contact”.
- High: There is a high risk if workers are expected to enter an indoor worksite where it is suspected that there are people with COVID-19, whether they are other employees, customers, or residents/occupants. OSHA advises employers to consider delaying work if they can.
- Very High: While some workers are exposed to very high risks, construction work generally doesn’t carry a “very high” risk label. If there is a very high risk, for whatever reason, OSHA suggests very strongly holding off on the work until it can be done safely, without risking the health or safety of those involved.
OSHA urges employers in the construction industry to reassess engineering controls periodically and to identify any changes that can be made to minimize the need for using respirators with a high level of protection and any other personal protective equipment (PPE) that is required when workers are exposed to hazardous substances. The reason for this is to help save PPE for when it is really needed for activities that are associated with high SARS-CoV-2 risks of exposure.
However, OSHA recognizes that there are times when essential or emergency work is needed and there may be others on-site or in the immediate environment who are either known to have, or suspected of having, COVID-19. In this situation, it is vital to use physical barriers to separate workers from those who do or might have COVID-19. If this isn’t feasible, the suggestion is to use plastic sheeting as barriers to keep people who are going to be in “close contact” apart.
Another example OSHA provides when reassessing engineering controls is to consider improvements to dust collection systems or water delivery when doing earthworks, or when using jackhammers or when drilling, cutting, or breaking materials, either raw or during demolition.
Although not specifically covered by the OSHA recommendations, another important engineering control is to take steps to prevent your building (as opposed to a workspace) from becoming a high-risk area for infection from the Corona Virus. The quality of air in buildings is paramount, and by checking the existing quality of air and recommending improvements to ventilation systems and HVAC equipment, engineers can detect and eliminate unnecessary risks.
OSHA also recommends using administrative controls to reduce, or better still eliminate, the risks of exposure to COVID-19. These include:
- The standard operating procedures provided by OSHA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and all the various states or territorial areas.
- Training of employees so that they know what they need to do to help prevent the spread of the disease.
- Adequate screening when indoor construction work is scheduled so that potential exposure can be reduced, if not eliminated.
Additional guidance on training construction workers is provided along with details about PPE and safe work practices.
OSHA also provides detailed information relating to the use of cloth face coverings in the construction industry, warning that they are not PPE. If respirators and medical facemasks are required, cloth face masks should not be used. And if cloth face masks are used, they must comply with state or local requirements.
Stay safe, and if you are an employer, do everything you can to ensure that your employees and customers stay safe too.
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