September 10, 2020 / Ina Xhani

Q&A with Bill Geer: New Guidance for Construction Work during COVID-19

In August, the AIHA Construction Committee issued a guidance document, "Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19," (PDF) intended to help the construction sector deal with the challenges of COVID-19. It provides easy-to-use, accurate information from experts on construction health hazards about how the virus can be controlled on construction sites. Recently, AIHA talked with Bill Geer, member of the AIHA Construction Committee, about what motivated the working group to draft the guidance document, how it fits with other “Focus on Construction Health” documents, and what the working group hoped to achieve with it.

Why did the AIHA Construction Committee feel that writing the "Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19" guidance document was necessary when there was already COVID-19 guidance for the construction sector on the Back to Work Safely website? How do the documents complement each other?

Before the appearance of COVID-19, the AIHA Construction Committee wrote a "Focus Four for Health" (PDF) guide for four major health hazards in construction, and the committee intended to begin outreach. The committee then became concerned because if someone were to research how to address COVID-19 as an air contaminant in construction, the original document did not mention it. Before any of the Back to Work Safely guides were written, a team was formed to extend the “Focus Four for Health” process.

The resulting “Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19” guide uses a logical, step-by-step process originally presented in the “Focus Four for Health” guide, which uses models familiar to construction professionals, including the Job Safety Analysis tool and the traditional hierarchy of controls. It is intended to complement the many relevant detailed control items discussed in AIHA’s Back to Work Safely guidelines for returning to work in the construction industry, to which the committee contributed as well. The “Focus on Construction Health” document presents the overall process of designing and implementing a COVID-19 control program, and the Back to Work Safely guide summarizes many relevant elements and specific details to consider when reopening, over a broad collection of topics.

What is the goal of the “Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19” guidance document?

There are many individuals involved in construction site health and safety: the site owners, the superintendent, designated safety officers or competent persons, supervisors, union representatives, and individual employees. The goal of “Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19” was to provide all site workers with a health and safety model they could apply against COVID-19, using methods and tools they are already familiar with. The document begins with an introduction on how the disease spreads and key risk elements unique to construction, since the risks and controls appropriate for a healthcare setting with acutely sick individuals are typically not relevant to this industry.

The seven-step process follows the familiar hierarchy of controls. First, eliminate the hazard to the greatest extent possible through actions such as screening employees for symptoms and implementing social distancing. Then employ engineering controls such as barriers and ventilation, and adopt administrative controls through training, sanitization, and reduction of worker choke points. As a final recourse, require or encourage individuals to use PPE.

However, universal controls cannot be applied to all situations. Another important tool outlined in the document is the Job Safety Analysis, also known as a Job Hazard Analysis, which aims to address the requirements and hazards specific to a certain workplace. Sometimes the necessities of construction work prevent employees from maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other. In this case, a job-specific solution may be to increase respiratory protection or ventilation.

Other times, controls for COVID-19 must be integrated with additional controls, such as respiratory protection for silica or other contaminants. This is where the JSA process is most helpful. In the document, AIHA provides several examples in which contractors came up with workable solutions.

To better understand the “Focus on Construction Health” document, should you first read last year’s “Focus Four for Health” document?

These guidelines do not need to be read in any order. They use a similar process, but the original guidance document also addresses material handling, noise, heat stress, and traditional construction air contaminants such as particles and chemicals. Lessons learned by implementing either guidance document at a worksite may make addressing other health hazards easier.

Should the guidance be updated regularly during the pandemic? And on what might the updates be based?

The guidance provides links and citations, in both footnotes and the “Additional Resources” section, that lead to documents from the White House, CDC, AIHA, and state governments; scientific literature; and other sources particularly relevant to construction. As those sources are occasionally updated, users should review them for relevant changes.

Construction projects are problem-solving sites. As health and safety professionals and other organizations develop innovative COVID-19 control solutions for construction, it would be helpful if AIHA could create a means to share ideas among the wider construction community. Interested health and safety professionals could contact the AIHA Construction Committee. The committee also looks forward to collaborating with both the wider AIHA organization and other health and safety organizations.

Ina Xhani

Ina Xhani is AIHA’s communications specialist.


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