By: Geoffrey S. Pope Published: February 2021

Covid-19 and Redoubling a Commitment to Workplace Health

Approaching the anniversary of becoming aware of Covid-19 followed swiftly by economic restrictions, I detect guarded optimism, despite the fact that reported cases and Covid deaths in the U.S. are higher than ever.  Hope based largely on the rollout of two apparently effective vaccines (and that ICUs in most localities are not overcrowded) is advancing hand in hand with “mask fatigue,” as many yield to the temptation to throw caution to the winds.

Especially with the change of administrations in Washington, it is impossible to foretell whether the tentative re-opening of state economies will proceed, or whether swelling numbers of severe infections will throw that process into reverse.

As construction employers grapple with lockdowns, actual or threatened, infections (or the danger of infections) among the workforce, and fiscal stresses, it’s a good strategy, indeed a necessary one, to give some extra thought to the “health” aspect of “safety and health.”

In my childhood (at which time the U.S. economy was more industrial than at present) on-the-job accidents were everyday events.  Thanks to OSHA, and 50 years of efforts by the agency, employers, and workers, accidental deaths and serious injuries at work have plummeted, a laudable result.

However, protecting the health of American workers is a thornier task, among other reasons because, while crane collapses, trench cave-ins, and falls from heights are conspicuous, and often fatal occurrences, such things as lung disease caused from persistent exposure to silica over a period of years, and through a succession of different employers, is something more likely to escape notice.

If something positive benefiting the construction industry can be wrested from the ongoing Covid disaster, perhaps it might be a heightened awareness of harm to employees’ health not resulting from one-time occurrences.

By now, you’re surely aware of the primary recommendations to minimize the spread of Covid.  I’m no epidemiologist, but the measures that do not seem to be controversial include staying home when sick, reporting exposure and quarantining when you have been in close contact with infected members of your household or others, social distancing and avoiding crowds, and keeping your hands clean.

On a construction site, hygiene and distancing are real challenges; especially if clean water is in limited supply, you want a lot of hand sanitizer onsite, and to limit the number of people in elevators, trailers, vehicles, and close spaces.  The efficacy of mask-wearing continues to be debated, although most agree that, if it is to be effective, masks can’t be handled frequently, or with unwashed hands, or removed when the wearer is about to sneeze.  Arguments continue about transmission by asymptomatic persons, or from surfaces, but as an older person, I’ve opted to err on the side of caution, and as a layman, I suggest it can’t hurt to “socially distance,” not to share hand tools, or to disinfect frequently things that are handled by many.

Going beyond precautions against Covid, management should enlist the participation of the rank and file in formulating and propagating procedures and workplace rules to protect employees’ safety and health.

One way of advancing this goal is to remind employees at every opportunity that management is not only dedicated to its legal duty to provide a workplace free from health and safety hazards, but that, in order to achieve that, workers need not only to obey the safety rules, but to alert supervisors to hazards and infractions.

I read a lot of OSH Review Commission cases, and am often taken aback at how often bad consequences follow from hazards (for example, employees working in a lift bucket, perilously close to live power lines) that any “civilian” could identify as a threat to life and safety.  Good safety training requires repetition, including frequent reminders against assuming that the correction of hazards is someone else’s job.  These days, with highly-portable, easy-to-use technology that can transmit instantaneously voice, text, and real-time visual information, all efforts should be made to take maximum advantage of these tools to look for, detect, report, and correct hazards as they arise.

Further, since the mid-1990s, most companies have had computers in-house, and social media (thus far at least) isn’t censoring information concerning construction safety.  Another important task is to keep up-to-date on developments that affect your trade and your obligations.  Even if your company is too small to have full-time safety personnel, someone needs to be charged with spending a couple of hours each month searching online (the OSHA website is a fine place to start, although there are many websites devoted to construction safety) researching new rules, proposed rules, innovations in technology, and safety equipment that can improve your safety performance. 

Another lesson you should teach your workforce is that taking shortcuts (or using equipment or tools in a manner inconsistent with manufacturers’ instructions) in the interest of increasing production, or speeding up the completion of a task, is almost always a bad idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across cases in which employees were allowed to go down into unshored trenches “for just a few minutes,” with consequences ranging from an avoidable OSHA citation, to a trench collapse with one or more fatalities.

Fighting off severe Covid-related illness is not just a matter of minimizing exposure, but also having a strong immune system.  Working while exhausted impairs resistance to Covid, and otherwise increases the risk of accidents occurring.  Frequent breaks, therefore, are important, and doubly so as long as the pandemic continues.

Akin to this last point is that even those of us who have been spared getting Covid, or losing family members and friends or our jobs, are under increased psychological, financial and/or personal stress.  Alcohol and drug abuse, marital issues, myriad health issues not directly related to Covid etc. have been at high levels for almost a year.  Burnout, suicide, and impaired judgment leading to accidents are occupational hazards in good times in the construction industry, and you will do well to keep an eye out for employees who may be at risk.  Referral to an Employee Assistance Program is often productive.

A global pandemic is no time, either, for laxity in using, and properly, hard hats, appropriate footwear, and every kind of PPE as may be necessary to accomplish particular tasks.  Scrutinizing and adjusting workplace ergonomics (adjusting the workspace, the job and the way in which tools and equipment of all kinds are used to limit bodily stress, and maximize productivity) is also a good response to Covid-19.  Getting up and moving around at least hourly for 5 minutes or so is important for those who work at desks, or at a station requiring them to remain for periods of time in awkward, uncomfortable, or static positions.

While there are reasons to hope that the bad health and economic effects of Covid-19 might subside, if not at once than as we move into the latter months of 2021, none of us knows what difficulties might lie ahead.  Whatever may be, we all must strive to do our best, and, in construction, protecting the safety and health of our employees is a primary obligation.

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