With so many construction sites shut down, it’s a business imperative for builders and contractors to keep progressing on those they can keep open. It’s also critical to ensure workers have a safe environment. That means not just ensuring physical safety from worksite accidents, but also taking steps to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
To help companies navigate this new terrain, OSHA and the CDC have issued guidelines for safety and wellness specific to COVID-19. Most of the advice will be familiar already: keep washing your hands, wear personal protective equipment (PPE), minimize the number of workers who touch a given object, clean high-touch areas, and do as much as possible to keep workers six feet away from each other to minimize the risk of virus transmission. Most importantly, anyone with visible symptoms should not be onsite. Remember under OSHA rules, you may need to report any on-the-job transmission of COVID-19 that does occur.
Review these rules with workers before beginning work and ensure they understand that compliance is expected. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has put together a list of resources including toolbox talks and English- and Spanish- posters.
Note: This is a quickly changing situation and guidelines may be revised. Check often to ensure your procedures are up to date with the latest guidance.
What’s Needed for a Safe Job Site Now
To maintain a safe site with minimal risk of virus transmission, workers should have specific gear. This includes ample cleaning supplies, a handwashing station and/or hand sanitizer, and their usual PPE, plus gloves, face masks, and eye protection.
In normal times, N95 masks are ubiquitous at most job sites, but they’re hard to find now. This is no time to cut corners. To make the most of limited supplies of N95 masks, review the SDS of the products workers are using and reserve N95 masks for those who must use them. Product manufacturers can provide information on safe alternative masks other workers can use. The CDC has also released guidelines to optimize the use of the PPE you have or to safely reuse PPE.
Workers whose jobs don’t require N95 or similar masks can wear cloth masks intended to limit virus transmission. (In many states, cloth masks are required just to be in public.) In those cases, a simple bandana that covers the mouth and nose can do the trick. The CDC also has recommendations for making and using cloth masks.
There are also safe ways to extend the life of the N95 masks you do have. OSHA has released guidelines to help contractors and builders follow best practices for doing so.
Best Practice Safety Procedures
While trying to avoid the transmission of the novel coronavirus can feel overwhelming, the good news is maintaining a clean job site only requires that:
- Everyone on the job site should wash hands frequently, change their gloves when changing tasks, and avoid touching their face.
- Frequently touched surfaces (doorknobs, switches, control panels, tools, etc.) should be disinfected multiple times a day.
- Portable toilets should be cleaned and disinfected regularly, and kept stocked with hand sanitizer.
- Visitors to the job site should be limited to only those necessary. Any visitors must be briefed on relevant safety practices.
The other important step is maintaining appropriate social distance for workers on the job. This can be trickier, but is feasible with some planning. Each job site is different, and you’ll need to consider the size and type of project to determine the best way to implement it..
For example, you might need to limit how many trades are onsite at one time, or stagger the work times for subcontractors to reduce the number of workers onsite (or one part of a larger site). Similarly, you should designate workers into smaller groups and stagger their breaks so workers can maintain six feet of personal space.
Remember: Safety meetings are more important than ever to ensure workers have the latest information regarding PPE and avoiding virus transmission. With workers arriving at staggered times, you may have to have more meetings to cover everyone on the site. And those meetings will need to look a little different: Smaller groups of people, maintaining the appropriate amount of space to protect everyone.
Other steps include keeping one worker at a time in a vehicle, and postponing specific tasks that require workers to be in close contact. If a given task can’t be postponed (e.g. a safety issue) workers need to use all appropriate PPE, including gloves and masks, while they complete it.
These aren’t normal times, but business can continue as long as builders and contractors take needed precautions to keep their workers and job sites safe.