Oregon-Columbia chapter of AGC urges stricter practices to protect workers from COVID-19
Just days after news broke that a worker on a construction project at Intel had tested positive for COVID-19, the Oregon-Columbia chapter of Associated General Contractors has issued a call for construction companies to implement and strongly enforce measures to keep workers safe on active projects.
AGC chapter Executive Director Mike Salsgiver sent out a letter to members one day after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced he was banning non-essential construction in the state to help halt the spread of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. In late January, Washington became the first state in the country to have a verified case of COVID-19 and had the highest number of confirmed cases in the nation until mid-March, when it was surpassed by New York state.
Even before Inslee's announcement, a handful of cities and states had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by issuing bans on nonessential construction work. Although the governor of Massachusetts has not yet implemented a ban on non-essential construction, Boston was the first city in the country to suspend any projects that weren't emergency work. Cambridge, Massachusetts, soon followed suit.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe placed a ban on any construction activity other than essential projects.
California has yet to implement a ban, although a state trade group is recommending general contractors consider adding sanitary facilities and conducting regular deep cleaning at project sites. Some builders are considering shutting down activity on private projects.
Construction companies in Oregon had nervously waited to see if construction sites would be among the businesses in the state required to shut down. However, when Gov. Kate Brown announced new restrictions on Monday, construction sites were among the businesses identified as exempt. Still, Salsgiver is cautioning companies working on Oregon projects shouldn't assume that means the industry will continue to be allowed to work on non-emergency projects in the future.
The local AGC chapter and others across the country joined with their parent organization, AGC of America, to convince federal, state and local officials to tag construction as an industry vital to the survival of an economy that already is showing signs of heading toward a possible recession. The trade group's argument hinged on the fact the construction industry, in general, made safety a priority well before the COVID-19 outbreak. By adding additional elements to existing safety programs and standards, such as enforcing social distancing and monitoring anyone entering a jobsite, general contractors can create work environments safer than those found in the majority of other industries, according to AGC.
But the trade group's assurance also has placed an extra burden on general contractors to make sure all workers on a project are not only aware of the new safety requirements, but also follow them without fail.
"Federal, state, and local officials … have taken us at our word and allowed many types of construction projects to continue because they know this industry has a long history of complying with complex and ever-changing safety rules and regulations," Salsgiver wrote in his letter. "Any lapse in safety protocols can and likely will raise public concern that will prompt government officials to reverse the industry's ability to continue to operate with the stroke of a pen."
With an eye toward helping general contractors and their subcontractors create safe conditions for workers on projects, AGC has worked with public and health officials to compile a series of site practices the trade group is urging employers to set in place immediately. The site practices sheet is available in English and in Spanish, with translation for the latter version provided by the local industry trade group LatinoBuilt.
AGC also is working with the Oregon Home Builders Association to make sure the information reaches commercial, residential and renovation sectors of the industry.
The procedures outline the personal responsibility of each employee based on safety steps from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and steps an employee should take if experiencing respiratory illness.
The recommended practices for social distancing on projects go beyond just keeping a minimum of 6 feet between co-workers on job sites. Steps mentioned include having workers take breaks and lunches in staggered shifts so that there are never more than 10 people at a time in a break area, and foregoing usual large group, all-hands general meetings.
Safety meetings are the one type of meeting not discouraged; however, the practices call for small groups with a foreman or superintendent assuming the task of signing in each attendee rather than passing around a sign-in sheet.
The practices also recommend employers consider designating a representative to monitor everyone on a jobsite for signs of illness and even think about taking temperatures with a digital forehead thermometer that is disinfected between each use.
Additional procedures outline steps for monitoring who is going in and out of sites, including a series of questions to ask visitors in order to identify possible prior exposure to COVID-19, and procedures for disinfecting all work areas, including project trailers and offices. There's even a section of special steps to take related to workers who perform construction and maintenance work in occupied homes, offices building and other structures.
With an eye toward ensuring every project site in Oregon is as safe as possible during the COVID-19 outbreak, AGC is making the site practices sheet along with a worksite poster and banner available to any construction company in Oregon, even if they aren't AGC members. Free downloads of the guidelines and other materials are available at the website.
"The public is counting on all of us to do our part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus." Salsgiver wrote in concluding his letter. "I want to thank all of you in advance for making sure your workers remain healthy and safe during these very challenging times.
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