OSHA Issues COVID-19 Guidance for Construction Industry

This past month, after remaining relatively quiet following the coronavirus outbreak, OSHA began issuing industry-specific guidance on how to deal with the coronavirus in the workplace.

Until this month, the only construction industry specific guidance issued by OSHA was an OSHA Alert entitled COVID-19 Guidance for the Construction Workforce, a one page document providing little more guidance than that workers should stay home if sick, wear masks and frequently wash hands to prevent spreading and catching the coronavirus, and to sanitize tools and work areas.

Early this month, OSHA issued more comprehensive guidance for the construction industry. The guidance, as noted in the preface by OSHA is simply guidance, “is not a standard or regulation” and “creates no legal obligations. The guidance supplements general guidance applicable to all workplaces issued earlier by OSHA.

The new construction-specific guidance, which while more detailed than its earlier-issued OSHA Alert, continues to provide rather general guidance and encourages construction employers to engage in a three-step process to protect its workers including: (1) assessing the hazards to which workers might be exposed; (2) evaluating the risk fo exposure; and (3) selecting, implementing and ensuring workers use controls to prevent exposure.

The new guidance suggests that construction employers analyze potential coronavirus risks along a spectrum from “Lower” to “Very High”:

Engineering Controls

When working indoors and a person (e.g., coworker, visitor, resident, subcontractor) is suspected of having or known to have COVID-19 (Note: this seems a bit odd to me. If a co-worker or subcontractor is suspected of having or has COVID-19 they shouldn’t be at the worksite at all), the guidance recommends use of “closed doors and walls, whenever feasible, as physical barriers to separate workers from any individuals expriencing signs and/or symptoms consistent with COVID-19” including “erecting plastic sheeting Barrera when workers need to occupy specific areas of an indoor work site where they are in close contact (less than 6 feet) with someone suspected of having or known to have COVID-19.”

Interestingly, the guidance also recommends that construction employers “periodically reassess engineering controls (as well as work practices and administrative controls” to identify any changes that can be made to decrease the need for N95 respirators (or other respirators with a higher level of protection) and other personal protective equipment (PPE) ordinarily used for work activities that involve exposure to hazardous substances” (emphasis added) to “help conserve PPE that is in short supply or needs to be diverted to activities associated with higher SARS-CoV-2 exposure risks.”

Administrative Controls

The guidance also recommends that construction employers use administrative controls, when feasible, to reduce or eliminate potential exposure to the coronavirus by implementing and updating its workplace policies to reflect:

  • Standard operating procedures that follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OSHA, state/territorial, and local guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 infection.
  • Training for employees on the spread of the disease in the geographic areas in which they work. 
  • Screening calls when scheduling indoor construction work to assess potential exposures and circumstances in the work environment, before worker entry.

The guidance provides sample questions for screening work assignments before sending a a worker to perform construction activities in an indoor work environment:

The guidance also recommends training workers on, among other things, the following:

  • The signs and symptoms of COVID-19;
  • Policies and procedures applicable to the employee’s duties as they relate to COVID-19;
  • Information on appropriate social distancing and hygiene practices;
  • Types, proper use, and limitations of PPE;
  • The importance of staying if sick, wearing masks, use of PPE, and use of EPA-approved cleaning chemicals.

Safe Work Practices

The guidance also recommends that construction employers adopt the following safe work practices:        

  • Screening visitors, to the extent possible, for signs and symptoms of COVID-19;
  • Adopting staggered work schedules;
  • Identifying choke points where workers are forced to stand together, such as hallways, hosts and elevators, ingress and egress points, break areas, and buses, and implementing policies to maintain social distancing in those areas;
  • Coordination of site deliveries to maintain minimal contact and cleaning protocols;
  • Keeping in-person meetings as short as possible; and
  • Ensuring clean toilet and hand washing facilities.

Personal Protective Equipment

Finally, the guidance states that under OSHA’s PPE standards for construction (29 CFR 1926 Subpart E), construction employers much consider wither their hard and risk assessments, including construction site job hazard analyses, indicate a need for the use of protective PPE.

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