The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for construction companies, not least of which is how to keep their employees safe. All employers are required to provide their employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or physical harm, as per the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The construction industry has experienced high rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations, as detailed in a University of Texas at Austin study published last fall. But by following and enforcing guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local government agencies, construction companies can go a long way in limiting their exposure to not only COVID-19, but liability as well.
Study finds construction workers are at high risk for COVID-19
A University of Texas at Austin study found that construction workers were five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than non-construction workers. The study, which was published in October in the Journal of the American Medical Association, analyzed data from mid-March to mid-August of 2020 in Texas’s Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area. Authors of the study attributed the higher rate to many factors, including the fact that construction work continued early in the pandemic when many other industries were shut down. Other cited factors for the disparity included demographics, the nature of the work and practices by employers. The authors of the study estimated that the transmission risk was decreased by 50 percent with the implementation of safety measures, including wearing protective equipment like facemasks and gloves; thorough cleaning of equipment between uses; limits of the number of workers on a given worksite; and increased health surveillance, including daily temperature readings, rapid COVID-19 testing for workers with symptoms, and contact tracing.
Following safety guidelines
As the pandemic stubbornly continues, it’s imperative for construction companies to follow and enforce safety guidelines not only to protect employees, subcontractors, suppliers and others on the job site, but to avoid potential exposure to OSHA regulatory actions, worker’s compensation claims or negligence lawsuits. Over the last 10 months, OSHA has been focusing its enforcement activities on COVID-19 hazards and, from the start of the pandemic through Dec. 3, the agency issued COVID-related citations to 263 employers, resulting in proposed penalties exceeding $3.5 million. While following COVID-19 guidelines and advisories from OSHA, the CDC and local government bodies will not guarantee that no one will get the virus, doing so – and documenting your steps – will help protect you from liability in addition to helping protect your workers.
It’s important to keep up to date with CDC guidance for workplaces, which changes over time and was most recently updated Dec. 31. All employers should implement and update as necessary a plan that is specific to their workplace, identifies all areas and job tasks with potential exposures to COVID-19 and includes control measures to eliminate or reduce such exposures, according to the CDC. The most recent update in CDC guidance clarified that all workers should wear a mask that covers the nose and mouth and offered expanded details on health checks and testing, among other updates. The CDC recommends that employers consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks, including temperature checks and employee questionnaires, and that they consider incorporating testing for COVID-19 into their workplace preparedness, response and control plans. Other CDC guidelines concern cleaning routines, social distancing and ensuring sick employees stay home.
Construction companies are required to meet certain general and industry-specific OSHA standards, which have not been altered due to the pandemic. Rather, OSHA has issued supplementary guidance to advise employers on COVID-19 safety measures. Similar to the CDC, OSHA calls for employers to adopt infection prevention and control strategies based on a thorough workplace hazard assessment, using appropriate combinations of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent worker exposures. Some of OSHA’s COVID-19 tips for the construction industry call for the training of workers on how to properly put on, use and remove protective clothing and equipment as well as for the promotion of personal hygiene, including providing hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol if workers do not have immediate access to soap and water. When tools and equipment are shared, OSHA guidelines call for workers to be trained to use alcohol-based wipes to clean tools before and after each use. Other guidelines call for the regular cleaning and disinfection of portable toilets on job sites, limiting attendance and duration at meetings, and encouraging workers to stay home when sick and to report any safety and health concerns.
Sheehy Ware and Pappas represents owners, developers, contractors, insurers and others in all aspects of construction litigation. Our firm’s OSHA lawyers provide a wide range of services, ranging from OSHA compliance counseling to representing clients in OSHA lawsuits. Give us a call if you need help with a construction litigation or OSHA matter.