As the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads across the nation, many companies have been idled, but a significant number of construction projects have been deemed essential businesses. Workers, supervisors, and safety professionals on those projects must follow best practices to protect workers and their families from exposure to COVID-19.
Responsible contractors are hungry to publicly prove they can work safely and prevent the spread of COVID-19 while supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure and providing much-needed income for the people who work on those projects. After all, the construction industry employs almost 10.7 million people in the United States.
Construction projects must develop and implement a Site-Specific Health and Safety Plan consistent with best practices. Every construction project involves unique characteristics and circumstances, so what is appropriate and feasible for each project may be different. The guidance in this article is general and has been provided by experienced Safety Professionals representing Safety Management Group. Our intent is to provide the industry with general best practices that can be modified to fit the specific needs of projects.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of technology have determined that coronavirus-bearing droplets of all sizes can travel 23 to 27 feet from their host after emission through a couch or sneeze. Evidence suggests that droplets can also be released by talking, and that the virus can remain active for many hours on surfaces such as counters, doorknobs, and tools. In addition, it appears that individuals who have the virus but are not displaying any symptoms are capable of transmitting it.
Those facts underscore the critical importance of ensuring physical distancing between workers. Owners and contractors must adopt and implement a Physical Distancing Protocol and post details of that Protocol at the site. It has been reported that OSHA is verifying physical distancing, housekeeping, and sanitation of break areas.
Tasks. COVID-19 safe practices should be incorporated into all job briefings and task hazard assessments (THA). All THAs should identify whether each task can be performed by a single employee, and if not, what type of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is needed to assure the safety of all employees. Photos of the hazard analysis can be taken with an iPad or smartphone and sent via email or text message. This is also an excellent opportunity to introduce a Serious Injury and Fatality (SIF) program in which each worker completes a personal “what can kill you today?” pocket card.
Monitoring. It is advisable to designate appropriately trained personnel to monitor for proper social distancing, similar to how individuals are selected to observe fire watch required activities. Sites may be monitored directly, via web or security cameras, and by drones on larger sites. Smartvid.io, a provider of construction safety software, recently released an application for its Vinnie AI interface that automatically determines when workers fail to practice proper distancing.
Scheduling. Modifying work schedules by staggering shifts or offering alternate days of work or dedicated shifts can reduce the number of workers on a site at any time. Allow non-essential personnel to work from home whenever possible. Breaks should also be scheduled to reduce interactions.
Behavior. Common behaviors for workers should be modified to protect them. For example, traditional contact greetings such as handshakes and fist-bumps must be eliminated. Workers should be required to park at a safe distance from one another. This may require employers to provide extra parking and discourage ridesharing and use of public transit. If workers have to be bussed, keep them separated by every other seat.
Meetings. Whenever possible, perform meetings online or via conference call. If in-person meetings are necessary, such as tailgate talks, follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and limit groups to no more than 10 people. Make sure everyone is at least six feet apart and use spray paint to mark locations where they can stand safely. Consider the use of phone or video briefings with systems such as Smart TagIt.
Confined spaces. Evaluate confined spaces for maximum occupancy and to determine how to maintain physical distancing. Post signage as a reminder of restrictions.
Site logistics and control
Access control is more important than ever. The number of visitors to jobsites should be limited and controlled. Measures such as fencing, no-contact card readers, and modular turnstiles and guard station will help control site access and egress. All workers and visitors to the site should be screened (for example, with no-contact thermometers or thermal imagery cameras) to verify they do not have a fever.
Deliveries to the site should also be carefully planned with contact and cleaning protocols:
- Specific areas should be identified as laydown areas for deliveries.
- Lines can be painted to limit the areas for gang boxes and material sources.
- Jersey barriers can be placed to separate workers from delivery locations.
- Trash should be kept in specific locations where it can easily be transported from the site. Delivery personnel should remain in their vehicles when possible and have minimal contact with site workers. This isn’t a time for socialization.
The site itself should be assessed to support physical distancing by limiting the potential for workers to gather (including personnel in material hoists and site trailers). Identify and resolve potential choke points and install physical barriers and signage to restrict access to closed or confined spaces. Site trailers and break areas should be marked to provide proper distancing. Community food and lunch areas should be eliminated, and community coffeepots, water dispensers, microwaves and other shared appliances should not be present in break areas. Aerial lifts should be used by just one person at a time, unless additional PPE is worn.
Administrative action and policies
As with all safety efforts, steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces will only succeed with the complete encouragement and cooperation of company leadership at all levels. More than ever, jobsite observations are critical, and an investment in additional safety personnel on jobsites will protect both workers and their families.
Management must adopt a zero-tolerance policy for working while sick and encourage sick workers to remain home and self-quarantine. All supervisors and safety personnel should be alert to the symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. Creating a COVID-19 observation form for daily completion will formalize this process.
Another approach that may be useful is requiring employees to complete an electronic health verification form every day. The form could include the following questions, with any affirmative responses requiring the worker to stay off the site for 14 days:
- In the last 14 days have you or anyone you have been in direct contact with had a confirmed case of COVID-19?
- Have you, or anyone in your family, been in contact with a person that is in the process of being tested for COVID-19?
- Have you traveled internationally, been on a cruise, or been to any domestic location categorized as Level 3 by the CDC in the last 14 days?
- Have you had a fever of over 100.4 degrees in the last 72 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medication?
- Are you currently, or in the past 72 hours experienced coughing or shortness of breath?
If possible, assign an occupational nurse to the site and implement a 24/7 nurse screening triage to be used by all workers (including subcontractors). If that isn’t feasible, designate an appropriately trained employee to monitor the jobsite for signs of illness. Drones equipped with thermal imaging could be used to detect high temperatures of employees. Simple steps such as hand and boot sanitation checks can also provide indicators of compliance.
At a tense time like this, it’s also important to consider the mental health of workers. Simple steps like asking workers how they are feeling and how their families are doing will show a genuine interest. Setting up a “good catch” program to recognize workers who are following protocols to protect themselves and their peers will increase awareness and compliance.
Don’t assume that workers are well-informed about the realities of COVID-19. One of the biggest challenges for public health officials is the spread of false or misleading information, especially via social media. In addition to posting and communicating COVID-19 policies for employees and contractors or trades, supervisors and safety personnel should discuss COVID-19 protocols, such as how to perform proper distancing, how to report if they exhibit symptoms or suspect a fellow worker might be ill, steps for disinfecting (with Safety Data Sheets for disinfectants), and when workers who have exhibited symptoms can return to the worksite.
One approach is to hold a company-wide stand-down to ensure that everyone is receiving the same message at the same time. Another is to produce a safety video about COVID-19 and distribute it electronically, so workers can watch it on their own devices or home computers. You can verify completion through the use of online forms and hard hat stickers.
The CDC offers posters with messages that include “Stay at home when you are sick,” “Stop the Spread of Germs,” and “Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019,” which can be placed at site entrances, elevators, buck hoists, job boards, break areas, and porta-johns. Information regarding the federal FFCRA and CARES acts should also be posted, along with hygiene details, and regularly updated state “heat maps” that show the number of cases by county. In addition to posting materials in English, be sure materials are available in other languages spoken by large numbers of workers.
Make sure workers are aware that their off-work behavior could expose them to the virus. They should follow any government stay-at-home orders and practice social distancing when shopping, exercising, or engaging in any other essential activities.
Depending on the nature of the worksite, a wide variety of engineering controls may be used to facilitate physical distancing and limit worker exposure. For example, additional ventilation can be installed for those who have to work in close quarters. Access to additional buck-hoists, elevators, or stair towers will limit close contact. Physical barriers and plastic sheets can isolate workers in dusty operations when the dust cannot be eliminated through other engineering controls. Water trucks can be used to control dust on the site. Frequently changed dust and/or sticky mats can be installed at entry and exit locations, and shoe sanitation tubs (with non-bleach sanitizer) can be mandated prior to entering/leaving jobsite.
Sanitation and hygiene
If the overall project schedule does not already include a cleaning and sanitation schedule, one should be added. Items that are frequently touched, such as handrails, doorknobs, locks, and latches should be prioritized. Cleaning protocols and worker education should address cross-contamination, with frequent cleaning of smartphones, computers, tablets, keyboards, pens, and the like. Deliveries should be cleaned before being used, and door handles and gear knobs on delivery vehicles should also be sanitized. Other sanitation methods may include UV sanitation and fog atomizers.
The contractors and project owners should ensure that handwashing stations with soap and water and hand sanitizers (containing at least 60 percent alcohol) are readily available on the site. Portable toilets should be cleaned regularly, and workers should use toilet paper or paper towels as disposable seat covers rather than touch the toilet directly. Personal water jugs or single bottles should be used in place of shared bottles, with no community ice chests.
Personal Protective Equipment
As always, having the right PPE is a critical element of workplace safety. When facing a pandemic like COVID-19, personal protection is also necessary to protect workers from becoming infected by peers or from droplets they have left behind. For most workers, gloves are mandatory and coated gloves should be worn at all times on the worksite. Those who will work in close quarters with others may also need to wear masks, gaiters, and/or face shields, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and spoggles or goggles. The CDC is not recommending that workers wear N95 masks, and under the March 17 federal directive, those should be donated to healthcare providers. All workers should follow manufacturer’s recommendations to decontaminate and sanitize PPE and clothing before each use.
Tools and equipment
Because the virus may remain active in droplets for hours, shared tools should be eliminated wherever possible and all tools should be cleaned regularly. Any shared equipment (including tools and vehicles) should be disinfected before and after each use, with disinfectant wipes readily available. Users of the tools or vehicles should wash or sanitize their hands before and after use. Most tools can be cleaned with mild soap and or an approved diluted bleach solution, and a clean damp cloth. They should be left to rest for three days when possible.
If blood or other bodily fluids are present on the tool or other equipment, the established Bloodborne Pathogen protocols for the jobsite should be followed.