With construction considered essential in many states during the COVID-19 pandemic, jobsites are grappling with how to protect workers from the virus while maintaining a safe work environment. To address questions about COVID-19 and government recommendations among its membership, the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) hosted a webinar titled, “COVID-19 Pandemic: Protecting Our Members in the Workplace.”
Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), first explained some of the facts about COVID-19, also known as SARS-CoV-2. He said the average time from exposure to showing symptoms of the virus is 5.2 days. However, 99% of individuals exhibit symptoms within 14 days. The major symptoms of the disease include fever, a dry cough and trouble breathing.
“There are people who get COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization for respiratory distress. But even those people who do not require hospitalization report being very sick. Some people spend three weeks in the hospital,” said Howard. “Some people may become infected with SARS-CoV-2 yet not feel sick. They may be pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. That’s something that’s worrying us.”
The disease is transmitted through droplets from the saliva and mucus of infected individuals. The droplets are produced primarily when an infected individual coughs, sneezes or speaks forcibly. The virus could be transmitted directly from person to person through the droplets or indirectly by physical contact with an intermediary surface that was recently contaminated, such as a doorknob.
Howard explained that there are no proven medications to treat COVID-19, however, several are undergoing clinical trials to see if they’re safe if they work. Trials are underway for both existing medications and vaccines.
“The CDC and China determined the entire genetic code of the virus in January. This has allowed vaccine trials to begin very quickly. There are three phases to vaccine testing: safety, efficacy and a large population trial,” said Howard. “The timeline is 12-18 months but there’s no guarantee that the initial vaccine candidates will be effective.”
While a vaccine is not yet available, people can minimize the spread of COVID-19 through routine cleaning and disinfection practices with readily available and affordable products. Howard said there are currently 287 available products registered with the EPA for disinfection.
“The disinfectant’s contact time with the surface or object should not be brief. Don’t just put it on an immediately wipe it off. Clean the surface first to get rid of dirt and the leave the compound on for at least a minute,” said Howard. “… It’s also important to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. That will break up the envelope of the virus. Wash hands frequently.”
He added that the best way to prevent people from contracting the virus is to practice physical distancing.
“Keep 6 feet apart at minimum. Do more if possible,” said Howard.
Howard provided some basic guidelines to keep workers on jobsites healthy. The first is that if someone feels sick they should stay at home.
“Ask workers when they come in to self-identify if they have symptoms such as a fever, coughing or shortness of breath. If they do, they should be sent home. Also ask workers if they have had known close contact with a COVID-19-positive person or if they’ve been asked by a doctor to self-isolate. Screen all visitors to the jobsite,” advised Howard, who added that jobsite leaders can also use no-touch thermometers to do temperature checks. These checks won’t filter out everyone who has COVID-19 but it will prevent some from entering the jobsite.
He also recommended that crew meetings and toolbox talks occur with 6 feet of separation between workers. Crews should also designate a site-specific COVID-19 officer for each jobsite to monitor and check how well people are conforming to the rules.
Staggered shifts can minimize the number of people on a site. For those onsite, Howard recommends restricting access to enclosed and confined spaces that are unventilated when possible, especially break areas.
Proper personal protective equipment (PPE) usage is also important.
“Gloves should always be worn while onsite but don’t touch the outside when taking them off. Wear eye protection even if you don’t need to protect your eyes. It will prevent you from touching your eyes. Wear a respirator if you can,” said Howard, who added that respirators, such as some N-95 masks, can be decontaminated and used again following CDC guidance.
One easy way to decontaminate and reuse respirators if someone has multiple is to wear one on Monday and put it in a bag once done. It should be left there until the next Monday when it will be safe to wear again because the virus would have died off during that time.
He also recommends that people cover their coughs and sneezes with their arm or a tissue. If sneezing or coughing into a tissue, people should then throw it away and properly wash their hands.
“Make sure hand sanitizers are available if there’s no wash station and use it liberally, often,” said Howard.
Len Welsh, former chief of Cal/OSHA, addressed some of the top issues brought to his attention. He explained that masks protect others while respirators protect the person wearing it. He recommended that those wearing a respirator do a fit test to ensure maximum protection.
“When you don’t do a fit test you’re still getting protection but you can’t be sure of the percentage of protection,” said Welsh.
He also explained that the recommendations from OSHA only go so far and jobsites need to come up with their own procedures with the trades communicating with the general contractors.
“If they don’t cooperate you’re looking at potential liability. Somebody will be claiming that someone didn’t do something they should have,” he said.
Welsh emphasized the importance of creating a culture around health and safety.
“It’s one thing to have rules; you also need compliance, not enforcement. People need to embrace the value of what is being complied with,” he said.
If N-95 masks or respirators are unavailable, Welsh recommends workers use what they have.
“Anything you can get your hands on is better than nothing. You won’t know the efficacy but it’s better than nothing,” he said. “And there’s no reason to change the PPE you’re wearing if it doesn’t interfere with your job. If you have a respirator on there’s no need to take it off when working closer together. Nothing should change unless it’s getting in the way or working safely. Don’t confuse health and safety. Take care of your immediate safety first and then your health.”