Getting the flu or a powerful cold can knock down even the sturdiest construction workers for days on end. It can do the same to an entire construction project’s schedule.
During the winter, respiratory illnesses pose a serious threat to the health of your crews and business operations. That’s why it’s critical to prevent the spread of nasty germs among your workers with the same care and caution that you’d bring to managing any job-site hazard.
Michael Faith, Risk Management Technical Manager at Builders Mutual, shares some tips for workers to keep the flu and other illnesses in check and for managers to keep their projects moving ahead safely.
Unique workplace challenges in construction
A job-site isn’t like many workplaces. Close to 90 percent of construction work is exposed to fresh air – a good thing since cold or flu viruses are usually spread between people in closed-off spaces when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks.
But construction workers face unique challenges that increase the chance of infection. Many crews still end up in close proximity to each other since they often ride together in the same vehicle to job-sites. Or they share the same tools, potentially touching contaminated surfaces and then their own mouth, nose, or eyes.
Moreover, sick workers in other professions may be able to work through minor symptoms without endangering themselves or others. But in construction, a respiratory illness – as well as over-the-counter medications used to treat it – can slow reaction times and possibly impair judgment and decision-making, resulting in increased risks for those working on roofs or with heavy equipment and power tools.
In a job like construction, where workers are encouraged to “soldier on” through uncomfortable or strenuous situations, many may be reluctant to stay home when they’re not feeling well, even though it’s the number-one way to prevent the spread of viruses at work. After all, most workers who don’t show up won’t get paid. The result can be a workplace filled with people too sick to be there, making even more people sick.
Tips for prevention
How can contractors create a healthier job-site? It starts with prevention. Here are some tips to limit the spread of viruses that cause the flu, colds, COVID-19, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
- Wash your hands frequently. To scrub away the viruses that may live on your hands, wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds, or use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol – especially after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Using a hand sanitizer may be even more practical than washing. For one, it’s more convenient than leaving your station to find a bathroom. Plus, in winter, job-site washing stations may be inoperable due to frozen water.
- Keep your work areas clean. Wipe down surfaces – not just in obvious places like restrooms, but in workshops and office spaces, too. Also, clean tools before passing them among workers.
- Consider wearing masks. Masks prevent viruses from entering your nose and mouth. We’ve also learned that they keep the nasal passages warm in colder weather, which may improve the immune system.
- Encourage vaccinations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a number of annual vaccines for most adults. Even now, it’s not too late in the season to get a flu vaccine to protect yourself and your family. Vaccines are especially important for those at high risk of flu complications, including people with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes.
- Practice healthy habits. Eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep and exercise will help boost the body’s natural defenses.
- Stay at home if you feel sick. If you have flu-like symptoms like a fever or chills, you should stay home from work until at least 24 hours after you no longer have a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher without the use of fever-reducing medicine. People with the flu are most contagious during the first three days of their illness. However, if you have a family member who has the flu, but you feel well, it is safe to go to work.
Staying home vs. staying on schedule
Despite the advice to stay home when sick, many managers may turn a blind eye since fewer workers on the job-site will force other members of the crew to work harder and longer – or cause a project to be delayed.
But it’s important to look at the bigger picture. As a supervisor, would you rather have one worker out for a few days or an entire crew out for a week? That’s the risk you take when one sick employee shows up to possibly infect the rest of your workers.
Besides, while a younger worker may be able to push through a cough and stuffy nose, that person may pass on their virus to an older worker who may not be able to fight off their sickness as easily.
How managers can help stop the spread
Good job-site hygiene starts at the top. That means managers must set expectations for employees around what to do when they’re feeling sick. Supervisors should:
- Have a clear-cut policy that lays out when employees should stay at home (without reprisal) and when it’s safe to come back to work. Some states mandate sick leave for certain employees, so make sure you’re following all applicable laws.
- Communicate clearly and provide education on topics from flu symptoms to “respiratory etiquette,” such as covering coughs and sneezes with tissues. Have a short Toolbox Talk to go over these topics.
- Provide resources such as tissues, no-touch trash cans, hand soap, and/or hand sanitizer.
If you need help educating your workforce on flu prevention, Builders Mutual experts can help. Our risk management consultants can provide resources to inform your illness-related work policy or next Toolbox Talk.