Safety Considerations for Contractors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Many businesses have temporarily closed because of COVID-19, but some construction operations continue. Safety has always been a major issue for the construction industry. As construction workers carry out essential services during the pandemic, they must grapple with a new threat: preventing the spread of disease.

Essential Services and the Construction Industry

Multiple states have ordered non-essential businesses to close in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, in some situations, construction falls under the category of “essential,” meaning that operations may be allowed to continue.

In Washington, Governor Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 23. Washington’s list of permitted essential businesses includes the following:

  • “Construction workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction) for all essential facilities, services and projects included in this document, and for residential construction related to emergency repairs and projects that ensure structural integrity”
  • “Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of construction sites and construction projects”

On March 25, Governor Inslee issued a memorandum clarifying that general, commercial and residential construction is not considered essential. However, construction is considered essential, and therefore allowed, when it meets the description in the executive order, as well as when it is done for the following reasons:

  • “To further a public purpose related to a public entity or governmental function or facility, including but not limited to publicly financed low-income housing”
  • “To prevent spoliation and avoid damage or unsafe conditions, and address emergency repairs at both non-essential businesses and residential structures”

In Oregon, Governor Brown issued the Stay Home, Save Lives order, also on March 23. At this point, the state has not issued a list of businesses that qualify as essential. Instead, the state has listed businesses that must close and provided a quiz for businesses to take to determine their status.

Many other states, including California, have issued similar shelter-in-place orders. These orders may change as the situation evolves. Businesses should check with their state’s guidelines to determine whether their operations are permitted to continue, and they should monitor the situation for updates.

In some situations, construction work may need to continue for the well-being of the community. When this is the case, construction managers must work carefully to ensure that all necessary health and safety measures are being taken to limit the risk to workers.

Contractors who are continuing to operate must do so in a way that is as safe as possible, to minimize the potential for workers’ compensation and employment practices liability insurance claims.

Keeping Construction Sites Safe

Construction workers should be practicing the same basic health and safety measures as the rest of the population, including:

  • Preventing those who may have been exposed from entering the jobsite
  • Washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Disinfecting high-touch surfaces
  • Not touching one’s face
  • Covering one’s mouth when sneezing or coughing
  • Staying home when sick
  • Avoiding group gatherings and maintaining a distance of at least six feet from other people –

OSHA has published Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Recommendations are provided based on whether a business is considered high, medium or low risk for coronavirus spread. Some construction work may be classified as lower risk because workers have limited interaction with coworkers and the public. However, safety is still essential.

In addition, the AGC Construction Association has published two guides on COVID-19 workplace safety:

Construction managers should perform a risk assessment. Policies should be implemented to enforce social distancing, to keep equipment disinfected and to ensure that workers who are sick stay home. At the same time, regular safety measures must also be maintained. The risk for falls and other injuries does not disappear simply because a new risk has emerged.

According to the CDC, workers should be discouraged from sharing phones and other equipment. Frequently touched surfaces should be disinfected. The EPA has released a list of cleaning products that are effective against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

It’s important to train workers on how to stay prevent the spread of coronavirus. General contractors should ensure that subcontractors are also following best practices.

If a Worker Becomes Sick

Workers who are sick should stay home. If they come to work, they should be sent home. Workers should be told to notify their employer if they have symptoms of coronavirus, including fever. Workers should also notify their employers if they a household member is sick with COVID-19.

If a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19, the CDC says that employers will need to inform other workers that they may have been exposed. However, the identity of the worker should not be disclosed because confidentiality is required. See the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses for more details.

Because widespread illness is possible, construction employers should plan for absenteeism. They should also review their leave policies. In some cases, paid leave may be required. Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which is effective through December 31, 2020, covered employers must provide two weeks of paid leave for all employees for specified coronavirus-related reasons, and some employees are entitled to an additional 10 weeks of paid leave.

Propel Insurance is here to help you navigate construction risk management challenges during this unprecedented time. Contact us to learn more.

Eric Zimmerman

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