COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is spreading in parts of the United States. The western region of the country has been hit the hardest, with nine deaths in the Seattle area and 43 cases of infections in California, 26 of those in the San Francisco Bay area.
To help prevent the spread of the virus, some schools and businesses in the affected areas have shut down and residents are understandably concerned about how to stay healthy. The good news is that the risk of transmission for those employed outside the healthcare, border protection, airline and other sectors that have a higher-than-average chance of coming in contact with infected individuals is low, according to OSHA.
While local builders’ associations in these areas are keeping an eye on developments, they say that contractors in the regions affected are operating with a “business as usual” mentality.
For instance, in the Seattle area, no members of the Associated General Contractors of Washington have stopped work, Mandi Kime, the chapter's safety director, told Construction Dive. But this doesn't mean they aren't paying attention to the outbreak's spread, she said, adding that "there is a great deal of concern given the recent deaths in Seattle, and many areas schools and other facilities closed."
The AGC of California is monitoring the virus’ impact on the state’s construction industry, according to a spokesperson, who said it has been negligible.
“So far, we have received a nominal number of reports over the delayed delivery of manufactured and raw materials,” the spokesperson said. “However, it appears that no reports have come in related to the virus’ impact on our workforce or development of projects.”
Kime said she has received many calls this week from members concerned about how to prepare for COVID-19. The organization has developed a Toolbox Talk for its members to use to discuss the issue with their crews.
The chapter’s primary advice to contractors is to remind teams to use good hygiene including frequent hand-washing, covering coughs and avoiding touching your face. Wearing a dust mask will not necessarily protect workers, she said, but some choose to wear one to help them avoid touching their faces.
“The basic principles of avoidance that we used for the H1N1 flu outbreak over 10 years ago applies to this situation,” she said. “My goal is to reduce hysteria and share facts.”
- Frequently wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- If soap and running water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Employers should adapt infection-control strategies based on a thorough hazard assessment, using appropriate combinations of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE) to prevent worker exposures.
Shortage of N95 masks
One of those protective measures, masks, could be in short supply soon. Despite U.S. Surgeon General warnings (here and here) to the public that masks do not prevent people from catching COVID-19, that hasn't stopped Americans from cleaning out mask supplies at pharmacies, big box home improvement stores and other local outlets. This includes N95 respirator masks, which construction workers and subcontractors commonly use.
So far, though, the construction industry in general does not seem to be having a problem with mask supply, even in the Western U.S. where there are the most cases of COVID-19.
“As union carpenters, safety is our No. 1 priority,” said Maria Coronado, lead representative of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters' Los Angeles Local 213. “At the moment, our contractors have not reported a shortage of N95 masks in the Los Angeles area. If that shortage occurs, we will work together with our partners to find a solution that ensures our members remain safe on their jobsites.”
Chris Trahan Cain, executive director of the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) also said that, after checking in with several of its building trade affiliates, there are no reports of N95 shortages.