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How can the construction industry safely return to work after COVID-19?

Adrian K. Cousens –

As the world begins to focus on restarting the economy post-COVID-19, and politicians debate if, when and how to get America back to work, many businesses are trying to determine what standards, laws and precautions will apply and need to be taken when restrictions are eased or lifted.

See how the construction industry, which stalled during the pandemic, will focus on safety as it returns to work when it ends.

In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf’s March 19, Executive Order closed all businesses that are not life sustaining. According to the Industry Operation Guidance issued by the Governor’s Office, most construction projects, except emergency repairs, construction of health care facilities and some municipal projects, were considered not life sustaining and came to a jarring stop.

Now with an end to the COVID-19 closures in sight, it is critical to evaluate what framework is already in place and what resources are available to help guide construction industry employers and workers as they return to work.

OSHA in the construction industry and PA

In 1970 Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act and created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The purpose of the Act and agency is to ensure safe and healthful working conditions by setting and enforcing standards in the workplace. Some states have developed state plans, approved by OSHA, but Pennsylvania is under Federal OSHA jurisdiction for most private sector employers and their workers.

OSHA applies to most workplaces, but is often associated most closely with the construction industry. According to OSHA, nearly 6.5 million people work at approximately 252,000 construction sites across the nation on most days and the fatal injury rate for the construction industry is higher than the national average. This is because of the potential hazards for workers in the construction industry, including falls from height, trench collapse, scaffold collapse, electric shock and failure to use proper personal protective equipment or PPE.

PPE in the construction industry

PPE has become a term familiar to all Americans over the past few months as the lack of PPE across the nation has led to widespread creativity and resourcefulness in procuring and creating facial coverings that are now seen in all aspects of our everyday lives.

29 CFR 1910 Subpart I sets forth the standards for PPE in general industry. This includes the use of gloves, eye and face protection and respirators when appropriate. The standards also mandate that, where appropriate, an employer must implement a respiratory protection program.

Furthermore, there is a requirement under the law that employers must provide workers “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

So how do employers and construction companies determine what standards apply, what hazards exist and what precautions need to be taken? The answer lies in industrial hygiene.

What is industrial hygiene?

Industrial hygiene is the science of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating, and controlling workplace conditions that may cause workers’ injury or illness (OSHA 3143 (1998)).

Industrial hygienists are engineers and scientists who are trained to evaluate the workplace and help prevent potentially dangerous conditions for the workers.  Most industrial hygienists have training in epidemiology and community exposure.

Ordinarily that training is applicable in the construction industry to identify and mitigate hazards in the workplace generated through the nature of the work and the materials and conditions which surround it. However, in the case of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, they are particularly well trained to identify hazards and implement and monitor policies and procedures to help protect health and safety of all those on the construction site.

How industrial hygiene helps the construction industry get back to work

Some projects have already engaged industrial hygienists to design and implement plans to deal with the COVID-19 hazard. Some of these measures include:

  • Requiring contractors to submit new health and safety protocols or practices.
  • Developing site access protocols.
  • New employee site orientation and training.
  • Daily ‘toolbox talks’ addressing safe working procedures.
  • Temperature screening.
  • Evaluation of hygiene facilities.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
  • Written documentation procedures.
  • Monitoring procedures.
  • Personal Protective Equipment program procedures.

As a core component of our economy gears up to get back to work, it is essential the construction industry as a whole takes the appropriate steps to make sure it is done safely and with the appropriate thought and precaution.

Partner Adrian K. Cousens is chair of Gross McGinley’s litigation team. During his service in the U.S. Air Force, he was trained in industrial hygiene and OSHA PPE programs. As a litigator, he has worked on construction contract and insurance cases, construction accident and safety cases, as well as construction defect cases.

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