OSHA Clarifies Safety Requirements for the Construction Industry and those Performing Work in Occupied Homes During COVID-19

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Have you updated your Workplace Safety and Health Program to identify and address the new hazards COVID-19 creates?  If not, now is the time, as OSHA expects employers to assess their workplaces to identify the ways their workers may be exposed to the virus and establish a program that addresses how they will eliminate or control the hazard.  In addition to guidance on performing this assessment, OSHA lays out specific considerations for interior work where a homeowner or other person suspected or confirmed to be COVID-19 positive is present.  Formal COVID-19-specific training is also expected for every employee. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA has issued a series of industry-specific guidance addressing COVID-19-related hazards under certain existing safety standards and the OSH Act’s general duty clause.  A previous installment in this series was COVID-19 Guidance for the Construction Workforce, which highlighted a few general safety tips for employers in the construction industry.  OSHA now supplements that information with additional guidance for construction work during COVID-19 (Guidance). 

Like prior industry-specific guidance, the new Guidance does not create any new legal obligations per se; however, the Guidance provides critical insight about how OSHA will apply existing standards, including the general duty clause, to COVID-19-related hazards in this industry.  

Employers Must Have a Plan for COVID-19

The Guidance instructs employers to assess the worksite, identify those tasks that create potential exposure to COVID-19, and create a plan that eliminates or controls COVID-19 related hazards through engineering controls, administrative controls, safe work practices, and, in limited circumstances, respirators and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Assessing Work-Task Risk Level

The first step is to determine what risk level each work task falls under, and where possible, to postpone high-risk activities until the activities can be performed under appropriate safety measures outlined in the Guidance or once community transmission of COVID-19 subsides.

To assist employers with this endeavor, the Guidance identifies types of work tasks that create low-, medium-, and high-/very-high exposure risks.  The Guidance recognizes that most construction tasks are in the low- to high-risk categories, rather than the very-high risk category, stating:

  • Low-risk tasks allow employees to remain at least six feet apart and involve little contact with the public, visitors, or customers;
  • Medium-risk tasks require employees to be within six feet of one another or require employees to be within six feet of customers, visitors, or members of the public; and
  • High-risk tasks involve work indoors with employees, customers, or residents suspected of having or known to have COVID-19, including when an occupant of the site reports signs and symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Occupied Interior Workspaces

Under the Guidance, employers with employees performing work in occupied homes or other buildings should implement standard operating procedures and employee training that ensure that employees:          

  • Ask any individuals in the building who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are experiencing signs and/or symptoms of COVID-19 (1) to remain physically separated from the employee (e.g., in a different room, on a different level of the home or building, or outside if weather and applicable emergency orders permit) and (2) to communicate remotely with the employee via a cell phone or other electronic means, including internet-based payment systems.
  • Ask individuals in the building to wear a cloth or other face covering, if available, and to cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Ask individuals in the building to ensure good airflow by turning on the air conditioning or, weather permitting, opening windows consistent with the CDC’s recommended precautions for people in households.

Where indoor construction work is essential and a person (e.g., coworker, visitor, resident, subcontractor) who is suspected of having or known to have COVID-19 is present in close proximity to the work area, employers should also:

  • Use closed doors and walls, whenever feasible, as physical barriers to separate workers from any individuals experiencing signs and/or symptoms of COVID-19; and
  • Erect sheeting barriers when workers need to occupy specific areas of an indoor work site.

Employers should consistently consider these and other engineering controls on an ongoing basis and to identify where these or other types of engineering controls may decrease the need for respirators and other PPE to improve employee safety and conserve PPE that is in short supply and is needed for higher risk work activities in healthcare.

OSHA lists the following administrative controls to reduce or eliminate the risk of exposure:

  • Create standard operating procedures that follow the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), OSHA, state/territory, and local guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19;
  • Provide specific COVID-19 training to employees (as provided below);
  • Evaluate worksites involving indoor work to assess potential exposures and safety concerns before any employee enters the space by considering the following.

Screening Questions

Action Steps

1. Is it construction work at an occupied work site essential, urgent, or emergency work?

If “yes”, proceed with a hazard assessment to determine how best to proceed when minimizing exposure for the employee.

2. Are there any individuals in the occupied site under quarantine or isolation due to a confirmed case of COVID-19?

Closely follow recommended infection prevention measures in the [Guidance] on Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls, Safe Work Practices, and PPE.

3. If the work is essential, urgent, or emergency work, are there any individuals or contractors in the occupied site suffering flu-like symptoms to which your employees may be exposed?

Closely follow recommended infection prevention measures in the [Guidance] on Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls, Safe Work Practices, and PPE.

Personal Protective Equipment

The Guidance states that, most often, employees will not need anything more than the ordinary PPE required to perform a construction task.  When other control measures are not sufficient to protect employees, employers should equip those who must enter potentially hazardous homes or occupied work sites with adequate supplies of appropriate PPE, e.g., gloves, eye protection, and/or face shields.  In limited circumstances, including situations that involve close contact (i.e., within six feet) with someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, respiratory protection—i.e., a respirator rather than a mere cloth facial covering—may be needed and must be provide by the employer as follows:

  • When respiratory hazards exist, employers must comply with OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (29 C.F.R. § 1910.34).  OSHA is, however, providing enforcement flexibility under the standard per prior enforcement memorandum.
  • When disposable respirators are used, employers must comply with the requirements of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (29 C.F.R. § 1910.34), including the requirement to train employees to put on respirators before entry and to remove and properly dispose of respirators upon exit.

Cloth Face Coverings in Construction

OSHA highlights and generally recommends the use of cloth face coverings, consistent with CDC guidance, particularly where social distancing is not feasible.  As the Guidance makes clear, cloth face coverings are not PPE, nor appropriate substitutes for PPE such as N95 respirators or medical facemasks in workplaces where respirators or facemasks are recommended or required.  However, cloth face coverings may prevent the spread of the virus by reducing the respiratory droplets people spread when talking, sneezing, or coughing. 

OSHA acknowledges that wearing face coverings may be impracticable for under certain conditions.  And, where facial coverings are worn in construction, employers should provide readily available clean cloth face coverings (or other disposable facemask options) when coverings become wet, soiled, or otherwise visibly contaminated.

When face coverings are worn, including where required to comply with state or local requirements, the face coverings should:

  • Fit over the nose and mouth and fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face;
  • Be secured with ties or ear loops;
  • Include multiple layers of fabric;
  • Allow for breathing without restriction;
  • Be laundered using the warmest appropriate water setting and machine dried daily after the shift, without damage or change to shape (a clean cloth face covering should be used each day);
  • Not be used if they become wet or contaminated;
  • Be replaced with clean replacements, provided by the employer, as needed;
  • Be handled as little as possible to prevent transferring infectious materials to the cloth; and
  • Not be worn with or instead of respiratory protection when respirators are needed.

Safe Work Practices

OSHA suggests these additional safe work practices for construction work:

  • To the extent possible, screen all visitors for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 before the visitors enter the site;
  • Stagger work schedules to reduce the total number of employees at the job site at any given time;
  • Ensure physical distance between employees;
  • Identify choke points where workers are forced to stand together, such as hallways, hoists and elevators, ingress and egress points, break areas, and buses, and implement policies to maintain social distancing in these areas;
  • In elevators and personal hoists, (1) ensure six feet of distance between passengers in all direction and (2) equip operators with appropriate respiratory protection and other necessary PPE;
  • Coordinate site deliveries in line with the employer’s minimal contact and cleaning protocols.  If possible, delivery personnel should remain in their vehicles;
  • Institute rigorous housekeeping program to reduce dust levels on the job site;
  • Keep in-person meetings (including toolbox talks and safety meetings) as short as possible, limit the number of workers in attendance, and use social distancing practices;
  • Ensure clean toilet and handwashing facilities, including regularly cleaning and disinfecting portable toilets, filling hand sanitizer dispensers, and disinfecting frequently touched items (i.e., door pulls and toilet seats).

Employers Must Train Employees Regarding Their Plan and COVID-19 Hazards

The Guidance echoes OSHA’s continued calls for employers to train workers regarding their COVID-19 plan and COVID-19-related hazards.  This training should include information about:

  • Policies and procedures that are applicable to the employee's duties as they relate to potential exposures to COVID-19. Employers should provide employees with a written copy of those standard operating procedures, where possible.
  • Information on appropriate social distancing and hygiene practices, including:
    • Avoiding physical contact with others and maintaining a distance of at least six feet from customers and other individuals, whenever possible, including inside work trailers.
    • Appropriate cleaning practices (i.e., washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or, if soap and water are not immediately available, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol and rubbing hands until they are dry; sanitizing all surfaces workers will touch).
    • The proper way to cover coughs and sneezes following CDC recommendations (i.e., sneezing or coughing into a tissue or into the upper sleeve).
    • Alternatives to shaking hands upon entry, and the importance of workers not touching their own faces (mouth, nose, eyes).
    • The benefits of driving to work sites or parking areas individually, when possible, without passengers or carpools.
  • The types, proper use, limitations, location, handling, decontamination, removal, and disposal of any PPE being used.
  • The importance of staying home when sick.
  • Wearing masks over noses and mouths to prevent spreading the virus.
  • The need to continue using other normal control measures, including PPE, necessary to protect workers from other job hazards associated with construction activities.
  • Using Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaning chemicals from List N or that have label claims against the coronavirus for cleaning frequently touched surfaces like tools, handles, and machines.
  • The need to report any safety and health concerns.

Next Steps

The Guidance provides insight into how OSHA views COVID-19-related hazards in the construction industry and establishes three main action steps that all employers should take, particularly those in the construction industry: (1) create a COVID-19 plan, which identifies and effectively eliminates or controls hazards posed by COVID-19; (2) train employees regarding the plan and COVID-19-related hazards; and (3) establish a standard operating procedure for entering indoor environments where persons with or suspected to have COVID-19 are present.  As OSHA inspections pick up and more workplaces reopen, construction employers and especially those having to work in interior occupied spaces will be wise to take these actions steps, if they have not already.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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