On the Job: What Construction Site Safety Takes During COVID-19

COVID-19 forces construction site safety innovation now and for the future. More stringent risk assessment procedures are keeping workers healthy.
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Safety managers see danger everywhere on construction sites. Scaffolds may not hold. Live wires can shock. Cords trip the unwary. Trenches collapse. But today, construction workers can’t see the biggest and most challenging threat of all: a microscopic virus. In age of COVID-19, they face an invisible hazard.

With 21 different projects under way, McKissack’s construction safety managers are not only inspecting job-sites daily to make sure contractors fulfill their responsibilities, we’re thinking out of the box to innovate new safety strategies now and for the future. More stringent, and in some cases inventive,risk assessment procedures are playing a pivotal role in keeping workers healthy.

Of course, every industry is looking for coronavirus answers quickly. Yet we’re only in the beginning of a crisis that will take years to solve, so for now the U.S.Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is issuing very general COVID-19 guidance. Personal protective equipment (PPE) in greater demand as well, and OSHA has relaxed rules about face masks and other filter respirators in the field to allow workarounds to shortages.

What we know about the coronavirus leaves no doubt that we can’t wait for new rules. One study, commissioned by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, found that keeping the Texas city’s construction sites open without any special safety precautions would pose two-to-eight times the COVID-19 risk for Austin’s construction workers and could triple the number of coronavirus-related hospitalization in the city’s general population.

State and local stay-home orders have not applied to any of our projects yet, but the District of Columbia and other jurisdictions have issued their own safe work procedures for construction sites.  A job-site may be cooking along with 200 people at work, and if someone gets sick the whole site will be shut down. That has already happened because of COVID-19—all activity stops for a few days to sanitize the trailer and other high-traffic areas. Spread of the coronavirus across the site could quarantine workers for weeks.  Beyond the serious health concerns, project costs will mount.

 New Work Procedures Strengthen Construction Site Safety

Clearly, contractors need to put their own safeguards in place that respect these requirements but may go beyond them. Part of the challenge is that every site is different, and training also varies at each site. We’re onsite to make sure they’re maintained on the job. Construction crews are gathering around—but not too close--in toolbox talks to explain the new protective procedures. These include:

Face Masks: With the risk of COVID-19 spreading across a construction site, respiratory protection is essential, and contractors have stepped up PPE use for all their workers. N95 fabric masks and other equipment generally had been required only for tasks that generate dust, or where asbestos or mold are present. Though construction respirators are not surgical masks, they’re in short supply. Some trades are making greater use of chemical gas masks with filter cartridges, or powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) that blow a stream of filtered air.

Gloves and Goggles: Nitrile, a copolymer originally formulated as a replacement for rubber latex, stands up to heavy use even after prolonged exposure to substances that cause other gloves to deteriorate.  It’s also stronger and more puncture resistant than latex. That makes nitrile gloves an optimal replacement for leather work gloves, which are hard to clean and disinfect. The palm has a flexible and durable synthetic rubber coating,textured for protection against cuts and to offer a better grip in wet conditions.Workers can wash the gloves with their clothes at the end of the day. Goggles and safety glasses are also being used more widely as coronavirus protection.

Hand-washing Stations. While contractors have long offered hand sanitizer dispensers on construction sites, hand-washing stations have become requisite. Portable toilet suppliers have sinks with soap or hand sanitizer and a foot petal to open a water tank. One contractor we work with has been making ingenious use of PVC pipe for handmade rinsing stations.

Social Distancing. Workers are keeping six feet apart except when close-quarters procedures are necessary. Yes, they do pull out their tape rules and measure. More often, though,managers are scheduling tradespeople so plumbers, electricians or other subs are not in the same area at once. Carpools have mostly gone by the wayside too;most people are driving to work alone. And people are watching; at schools or other high-profile sites, neighbors are assembling beyond the fencing to check our progress.

Small Crews. The works-pace is less crowded because contractors are assigning fewer people to jobs. Beyond staggered work schedules, crews can’t take the same elevator to their assigned floor, crowd around the catering truck or wait in the construction trailer. Managing the cadence of arrivals and departures might require longer shifts, but if done right it shouldn’t affect workflow and project schedules.

Sanitized Common Areas. We’re always looking for a neat, uncluttered work-space to avoid trip hazards, but now it’s especially important that work trailer, lifts, eating spaces and other often-used areas be kept clean. As we mentioned above, work was suspended to sanitize one job-site when COVID-19 exposure was suspected.

Contact Tracing. While some sites are already checking workers’ temperatures as they arrive, procedures are likely to evolve as testing becomes more widely available. Systems are also in place to track contact among employees that might have been exposed to the coronavirus, such as employee key-pass or QR-code scans at multiple locations on a job-site. A beacon clipped to a hard hat or lanyard can log comings and goings without scanning, or even beep when workers are too close.

Frequent Check-ins. We’re on inspections every day. Beyond regular visits around the same day and time, we appear unannounced to make sure contractors are following the procedures they set in place. We also can check logs remotely; some systems send out alerts if they’re missing timely updates. Video conferences with construction superintendents can supplement boots-on-the-ground visits. We might expect supers to carry their cameras around to show they’re set up for safety.

Tools, Techniques and Training. Smaller crews still have to figure out howto do heavy lifting and other tasks.  If respirators are in short supply, tradespeople are adopting accessories that rely less on masks, such as a water spray nozzle to control dust from a grinder or a hose attachment to suck up dust. Hand tools have improved to collect dust rather than release it into the air. Undoubtedly, future innovations will make it easier for one person to do the job of two.

Construction Management Finds a New Normal

Rules will vary with specific trades,the nature of the job, labor agreements and technical capabilities, among other factors. But our construction management team wants to maintain consistent safe work procedures across our portfolio. As part of our risk assessment procedure, inspectors produce reports about what construction supers are doing right or wrong. Safety managers are inconstant conversation about best practices.

But the next few months are critical.They will show whether social distancing has a lasting effect, and it will become clear by the end of the year what kind of new regulations are necessary.  And there’s no telling where safety could improve next. Hospitals sanitize surfaces with ultraviolet light.Will construction sites get disinfectant wands next?

Ultimately, safety innovations that have been adopted on the fly are likely to make their way into regulations as OSHA works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on new workplace guidance. New procedures will affect the bottom line,the people we hire, training requirements, even how carpentry and other workshops are set up.

The construction industry hasn’t changed much in decades. What we’re learning now will make the construction industry not only safer, but also more efficient. COVID

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