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OSHA Guidance for COVID and Construction Safety

October 14, 2020

Cecilia De La Rosa

Cecilia De La Rosa

Construction companies should take heed of state-issued COVID-19 safety guidelines so that they may retain their “essential” status should states call for another lockdown. By complying with OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance (Español), you can help your construction company avoid becoming a direct target of shutdown orders. While OSHA’s guidelines create no legal obligation or new standards, these sensible protocols provide methods for maintaining extra construction safety until the COVID threat has passed. With these points in mind, here’s what OSHA recommends.

Risk Assessment of Tasks Since construction jobs often take place in established and occupied buildings, it’s important to assess the site and design an appropriate COVID safety plan according to the anticipated tasks.

OSHA categorizes task hazards in four tiers:

Lower — Work that allows for at least six feet between crew members and where encounters with the public, visitors or customers rarely happen.

Medium — Duties that will place employees fewer than six feet from other workers, customers, visitors, or the public.

High — When the tasks involve entering a building where other employees, customers or residents are known or suspected of COVID-19 infection.

Very High — This would include such job sites as hospitals or care facilities with known COVID cases. While OSHA anticipates very little call for construction tasks in these types of locations, it certainly isn’t impossible. However, they do recommend that whenever feasible, the work should be delayed until infection rates drop and risk of contact becomes minimal.

Hazard Controls If the work will place employees in the same building as known or suspected COVID cases, and can’t reasonably be rescheduled, OSHA suggests developing methods to reduce contact with the sick by direct engineering and/or administrative controls.

Engineered For example, keep doors closed and walls between your workers and people known or thought to be infected. Consider putting up plastic sheeting to separate work areas if an emergency job requires proximity closer than six feet to the sick. Additionally, because demand for higher-level personal protective equipment — such as N95 respirators — has yet to return to normal levels, try to develop systems to reduce the need for them. OSHA suggests finding ways to improve water delivery and dust collection if you can. The fewer respirators needed on the job site, the more remain available when usage simply can’t be avoided.

Administrative Administrative control simply means educating your workforce. You can relay the CDC advice (Español) to your crews in case they have not already learned how best to avoid getting infected or spreading it to others. Remind them that COVID is thought to spread through close contact between people, hence the idea of keeping six feet away.

To reduce risk, your crews should know to wash their hands or use a 60-percent-alcohol hand sanitizer after:

  • Coughing, sneezing or blowing their nose
  • Using the toilet
  • Leaving a public place
  • Caring for an infected person
  • Changing a diaper or
  • Touching pets

Also, they should wash or sanitize their hands before:

  • Preparing food or eating
  • Touching their face
  • Handling tools
  • Handling a face mask

Teach your workers to recognize the signs of possible infection. Because COVID is primarily a respiratory disease, symptoms are similar to colds and common flu infections with sore throat, fever, sinus and lung congestion, fatigue, body aches, coughing and sneezing. But with COVID, a person might also present with:

  • Diarrhea
  • Sudden loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea and vomiting

Other administrative means to control risk include informing your employees on the infection conditions in your geographical area. Also, you should screen indoor work sites by phone before sending out a crew. By assessing the expected conditions, you can decide how best to direct the tasks to be performed.

Screening Work Sites If possible, ask clients if the work site is occupied. If so, will it be occupied by anyone known to be infected? If so, are they under quarantine or isolation? Don’t forget to inquire as to the anticipated presence of other contractors on-site adding bodies to a limited space. If the answers are yes, and the work is urgent, essential or emergency, plan on implementing the highest level of personal protection for your crews.

Work Safe Controls Finding the right balance between serving clients and protecting your workers’ safety may be tough for indoor projects. However, the more you pay attention and train your staff or subs to protect themselves and others, the better the odds of success. Employee training and client cooperation will be key.

Here are some important OSHA suggestion on maintaining a safe work site:

  • If the client has known COVID patients on site, ask them to move them to other locations in the building or home and to use masks.
  • If necessary, train your workers to never openly sneeze or cough into the air. Rather, they should use tissues or their upper arms to block the spray, even if they are wearing a cloth mask.
  • Insist workers remain home if they are suffering any of the signs of infection.
  • Rather than carpool to the location, have crews take separate cars, if feasible.
  • Educate yourself and your crews on the proper usage, handling and disposal of potentially contaminated personal protection gear.
  • Sanitize surfaces and shared tools daily using EPA-approved cleaning products.
  • Maintain good air flow throughout the construction area.
Guidance on Use of Cloth Masks and Respirators OSHA recognizes that cloth face masks can’t be substituted when protective respirators are needed. Be sure your crews continue to use N95s and other standard PPE for such tasks. Cloth masks are not to be worn with or instead of respirators. However, because genuinely protective masks can be hard to find right now, OSHA offers flexibility on PPE (Español) for the time being. You may use certain NIOSH-approved respirators and know that OSHA is allowing discretion in enforcement until supply catches up with demand. To learn more about OSHA’s COVID-19 guidance, please contact us at American Contractors Organization. We’re happy to help you work safe, especially during COVID-19.

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