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Many regions in the United States have deemed construction an essential business, making its workers exempt from stay-at-home orders issued to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Construction companies that are permitted to continue operations remain committed to ensuring safety. Yet, many are scrambling to understand the new reality and to create pandemic policies and procedures that protect their workers and their businesses.

The fluidity of the situation makes it especially challenging for safety professionals to keep abreast of worker safety precautions, compliance standards and regulations related to COVID-19. While recommendations and requirements may change as the situation unfolds, there are best practices construction organizations can follow to ensure their workers and businesses are protected and prepared. 

There are five best practices that should be top of mind for safety professionals.

1. Ensure Adherence to Reliable Prevention Recommendations

Dispelling inaccurate information and clearly communicating recommendations from trustworthy sources is a priority for safety professionals and one that is especially critical during a public health crisis. 

Construction managers need to assure their workers are well versed and adhering to the recommendations provided by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as these organizations remain among the most reliable sources for information and guidance to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Recommendations include frequent handwashing, keeping six feet of physical distance between people and requiring workers to stay home if they are experiencing symptoms or believe they may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

Industry organizations, including Associated Builders and Contractors, have recommendations and resources to help contractors navigate the crisis together. 

Additionally, many construction worksites are using temperature screenings to better monitor the well-being of workers. Strong human resource policies, including paid sick leave and paid time off, as well as a company culture that prioritizes safety and personal responsibility, can also help with keeping sick workers home. 

2. Understand and Comply with OSHA Standards

While there are no specific OSHA standards specifically covering COVID-19, there are several related to occupational exposure that do apply to the new reality. These include the following:

  • The proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection. OSHA has issued temporary enforcement guidance to address the current shortage of N95 respirators and to get them to health care workers who need them the most. Discussions are underway to set new recommendations and requirements related to the construction industry, suggesting a more flexible policy that makes use of administrative controls, such as job rotation, to minimize worker's exposure and maintain compliance. 
  • Companies should beware of counterfeit respirators, especially from international vendors. Under 29 CFR 1910.134, workers must wear respiratory protection that has been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 
  • General Duty Clause, which requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards. Bloodborne Pathogens standard does not typically include respiratory secretions that may transmit the COVID-19 but provides a framework that may help to control sources of the virus.

It’s important to note that there are several OSHA-approved state plans, providing state-wide occupational safety and health programs that may have different or more stringent requirements. Organizations should monitor its state’s requirements in addition to the federal mandates set by OSHA.

3. Leverage Standardized Training 

Safety training is an integral component of occupational health and safety programs, and one that is mandated by OSHA. To aid in protecting workers during this pandemic and preparing them for the potential of other public health emergencies, organizations should include pandemic training and preparedness in their required safety training. 

Pandemic safety training teaches workers how and when to take preventive measures during a health crisis. Effective training should address infectious disease preparedness, information on biological hazards and airborne contaminants, behavior-based safety training and address specifics of COVID-19 awareness and prevention. A standardized training plan that includes testing and verification guarantees better understanding and preparation among the workforce. 

4. Consider Social Distancing Measures

Social distancing, a key component of CDC recommendations to curb the spread of COVID-19, can be challenging at construction worksites. It’s up to safety professionals to enforce measures that help to create physical distance between workers. Some of the measures construction firms are taking to limit contact include scheduling staggered shifts and breaks, extending work hours, requiring smaller group meetings, limiting workers from traveling together to job sites and leveraging technology to enable remote communications whenever possible. 

Some firms are also turning to remote learning to provide workers ongoing access to critical training. E-learning safety courses can provide instructor-led training, including new pandemic training, while also meeting CDC guidelines on travel and social distancing. 

5. Build a Pandemic Preparedness Plan

A business continuity plan, a clearly defined roadmap to deal with the unexpected, is now top of mind for business leaders across industries. Disease prevention and control is a critical component of continuity planning, outlining procedures and processes organizations must follow to manage risk involved with this pandemic and any contagious disease outbreaks that may follow.

It’s not too late to create a plan or improve one that isn’t comprehensive by adding pandemic preparedness. An effective plan outlines an overview of infection prevention and environmental control guidelines that will be critical to minimizing the transmission of a pandemic outbreak and provides precautions and procedures to mitigate risks. 

If an organization is building a plan from scratch or adding pandemic preparedness to one already in place, it should begin by identifying a coordinator to oversee policies, procedures and implementation. Test the plan and emergency communication strategies periodically to ensure the plan remains effective and workable.

While it’s impossible to foresee the impact a pandemic like COVID-19 will have on the construction industry and its workforce, organizations can help mitigate damage by clearly communicating and enforcing safety best practices, providing updated and ongoing training, in addition to preparing for the unexpected. 

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