The Associated General Contractors’ March 26 “Navigating the Outbreak Webinar” series focused on protecting your people and your projects.
“Safety is the primary concern of every construction project … regardless of whether or not there is a virus present,” said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr. He also noted that most governments at all levels recognize construction as an “essential” business activity, but that the essential status can be overturned if appropriate safety practices—including social distancing, wearing personal protective equipment, and monitoring who is entering and exiting jobsites—aren’t maintained. “The public is counting on us to do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Sandherr.
Handling COVID-19 cases
The current approach for handling employees’ confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases is “better safe than sorry,” according to Howard Mavity, partner at Fisher Phillips law firm. If an employee is exhibiting signs of the coronavirus, such as coughing more than usual or having sinus issues, it’s okay to “just check in with them,” said Mavity. It’s also acceptable to ask an employee about their exposure to COVID-19 if there’s a credible third-party report that the employee had close contact with an infected individual. “You have little choice but to keep them out for at least 14 days from their exposure, which might be a rolling thing if they’re living with someone who has it,” he said.
If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, an employer must alert the rest of the company but cannot reveal the infected employee’s name or identifying details.
Mavity also shared if a company opts to take employee temperatures, they must be cognizant of privacy; do not retain the temperature or the employee name. Temperature takers should follow CDC guidance for healthcare workers, meaning that masks, gloves and even a face shield are necessary protective measures.
Employee safety complaints
Employers are obligated to provide a safe environment for employees. As such, Mavity suggests that OSHA needs to see what the industry views as a hazard and what the industry deems to be an appropriate response. OSHA’s occupational risk pyramid discusses levels of exposure risks, which will ultimately guide actions. But even that guidance isn’t set in stone in light of COVID-19. “We’re in such a fluid situation that it’ll be difficult to prescriptively apply that precise an analysis,” said Mavity.
Mavity also shared that OSHA is seeing a rise in employees filing coronavirus-related safety complaints. Most complaints cite nonroutine tasks, not being adequately trained, inadequate PPE and that they shouldn’t be working and are exposed to the coronavirus. The construction industry, said Mavity, should interpret those reasons as guidance about what the industry needs to do better regarding the coronavirus. He also said, “Everything we’re doing right now is a nonroutine task because we’re trying to carry normal business in an abnormal environment.”
Mavity stresses the importance of documenting everything, including actual complaints and actions the company takes to mitigate them. “As the situation gets worse, it’ll get trickier," he said. "There’s going to be an element for hazard for all of us every time we go outside. The best approach is to make sure employees know we’re on top of it.”
If an employee does not want to come to work, Mavity says OSHA’s approach (and most related laws in states) is to consider whether a reasonable person in that setting would deem this to be such a hazard that they cannot work safely around it. Before responding with a knee-jerk reaction, said Mavity, think through, “Is it reasonable for this person to refuse to come to work? Talk to the person, investigate alternatives, ensure adequate training has been done and you’ve done everything you can to address their concerns.”