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Report: Safe Practices Critical During COVID-19

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

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A recent study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin projected the epidemiological impacts of allowing some or all construction workers in the Austin, Texas-area to resume work on ongoing projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study—commissioned by Mayor Steve Adler—found that keeping construction jobsites open without updated safety precautions could raise construction workers’ risk of hospitalization eightfold by August and triple the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the general population.

COVID-19 Safety Concerns, Recent Shutdowns

Since former President Donald J. Trump declared a national emergency recognizing the threat of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—to the nation’s healthcare systems on March 13, just two days after the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 outbreak could be classified as a global pandemic, many city and state construction industries began reacting to the health crisis.

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A recent study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin projected the epidemiological impacts of allowing some or all construction workers in the Austin, Texas-area to resume work on ongoing projects during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first city to announce the halt of its construction activities was Boston, with Mayor Martin Walsh declaring on March 17, that all construction in the city would be banned for 14 days after reporting that 33 people had been infected with the virus at the time.

“This is a worldwide pandemic and our public health community has made clear that social distancing is the only way to combat this virus,” said Brian Doherty, the head of the Building Trades, an umbrella organization for Boston.

Following suit, on the same day, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission ordered all contractors to cease work on current projects for a minimum of two weeks, becoming the first state to suspend infrastructure-based construction as a result of the pandemic.

On March 31, PennDOT reported that 61 emergency and critical highway and bridge projects would be activated statewide, although the normal highway and bridge construction program would remain paused.

Although not all major cities or states took such precautions, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration published, “Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19” at the end of the month with the aim to help companies respond and address potential health and safety issues related to COVID-19.

The guidance was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and walks though:

  • How a COVID-19 outbreak could impact the workplace;
  • Steps employers can take to reduce exposure risk;
  • Jobs classified at Lower Risk Exposure;
  • Jobs classified at Medium Risk Exposure;
  • Jobs Classified at High or Very High Risk Exposure;
  • Workers Living Abroad or Traveling; and
  • OSHA Assistance, Services and Programs.

In the middle of April, the National Association of Home Builders announced that it was urging members and all residential construction companies to hold a Safety Stand Down and halt work for at least 10 minutes on April 16 to educate workers on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NAHB noted that with the recent clarification on essential businesses at the time, it could mean that more workers would be on construction sites in the coming weeks.

Regarding how the pandemic was affecting the construction industry in the nation, the Associated General Contractors of America released an updated survey, revealing that nearly 40% of construction firms had been forced to lay off employees and another 74% sought loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and urged Congress to add more funding.

AGC had previously released its first survey on the matter in March, but was able to show that owner-canceled projects increased from 7% to 19%.

Last week, the city of Boston, Mayor Walsh and the city Chief Operations Officer Patrick Brophy, began rolling out guidelines for reopening construction. The rules include that all contractors need to create a “COVID-19 Safety Plan” that is to include how the contractor will enforce social distancing and provide the necessary sanitation.

New guidelines were slated to be applied to essential construction projects on April 27, and plan to expand to all construction “eventually.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also announced a three-phase gradual reopening of the state’s economy. Although, House Republicans are reported to have taken matters into their own hands, passing along legislation that would allow various businesses—such as construction, auto sales, and retail stores—to begin reopening even sooner.

Additionally, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee was reported to be reopening residential construction, among other types, in the upcoming weeks while the state begins to recover from the economic effects of COVID-19. The decision arrived after a collaboration between the governor’s office and a construction advisory group recommended a three-phase plan to safely resume construction practices.

Safety Practices Study

According to the University of Austin, there are roughly 50,000 construction workers in the Austin metropolitan area. The number is reported to make up about 4% of the city’s labor force, but does not account for undocumented workers.

With that being said, the study was conducted based on a scenario that assumes roughly 90% of residents are staying at home through a strict shelter-in-place order, while construction projects continue without any special safety precautions.

From that point, the university reports that it considered several different scenarios in which we varied the contact intensity among construction workers at worksites and the proportion of workers allowed to work. For a base case, the researchers assumed that workers would maintain typical workforce contact, while lower risk scenarios lowered workplace contacts by 50% and for high risk scenarios, doubled the typical contact rate.

With the risk-based scenarios laid out, the university states that the incremental community risk of allowing construction work will also depend on the efficacy of stay home-work safe practices, the size of the construction workforce and the risk of transmission at construction work sites.

When studied, one of the more alarming findings discovered that keeping the city’s construction jobsites open without special safety precautions could triple the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the general population from 10,000 to 30,000.

“There’s always been danger on construction jobsites, which is why a focus on safety every day and especially during this time of the pandemic is critical,” said Phil Thoden, President of the AGC Austin Chapter. Thoden added that the study emphasizes the importance of safety measures.

According to Mayor Adler, he and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt had issued a mandate stopping all nonessential construction in the city and county, however that mandate was reversed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on April 2.

However, Thoden reports that some owners and contractors in the area have shut down sites they deemed “too risky,” while other local builders are continuing to go beyond city and county guidelines to keep workers safe.

“The study shows that if no safety and health procedures are implemented then our industry is at risk for increasing the spread of the virus,” Thoden said. “But if the safety and health procedures required by the city and county are being followed, then there’s negligible if any spread of the virus.”

Read all of PaintSquare Daily News' coverage on COVID-19, here.


Tagged categories: Commercial Construction; Construction; COVID-19; Good Technical Practice; Government; Health and safety; NA; North America; Project Management; Projects - Commercial; Regulations; Research; Research and development; Safety; Workers

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