Safe practices on the job-site for oneself and others
Since the formation of regulatory agencies, construction job-site PPE has focused on self-protection. From harnesses to hazmat suits, reducing and eliminating the risk of self-harm has been a vital part of working safely.
Enter COVID-19. Now, whether federally mandated or required by management, the rules have shifted. PPE—specifically wearing a mask—and social distancing are encouraged not only for the sake of the individual but also for the protection of others during the pandemic. This is especially important for two key reasons: (1) construction workers have been deemed “essential” throughout this crisis, and (2) a large percentage of job-site workers are Hispanic, an industry population in which there has been a reported uptick in coronavirus cases.
We spoke with experts around North Carolina to assess the safety measures and best practices being implemented on the construction job-site and to discover which additional actions could—and should—be taken to better protect the construction workers diligently showing up to the job every day.
“Since this situation began, our industry has really united to support one another,” says Lissette Velez, Executive Director of the Hispanic Contractors Association of the Carolinas (HCAC). “For example, some of Charlotte’s General Contractors have formed a coalition called 4C to pull together resources like banners, training materials, panel discussions and links to local suppliers with available cleaning supplies.
The response of the construction community is really inspiring.”
Information is still the top priority. Often, larger organizations have staff dedicated to training—and some organizations, such as Chavez Interiors (located in the Charlotte area), have even hired specifically for disseminating COVID-19 information. But owners of smaller companies may not have as much access to information or time available to dedicate to safety training.
Builders Mutual, always focused on safety education, has been integral to ensuring its customers have the materials and resources they need to stay safe—for both Spanish- and English-speaking populations. “We’ve created several bilingual resources that every company can utilize to help protect job-site employees,” says Bernard Urtecho, Senior Risk Management Consultant from Builders Mutual.
According to Holly Fraccaro, CEO of the HBA of Durham, Orange, and Chatham counties (HBADOC), “We immediately began sharing our resources, including the Builders Mutual safety video in Spanish.”
The HBADOC has asked all general contractors and project managers to keep the video on their phones and use it every day as an initial check-in with their teams. “We care about all trades,” says Fraccaro, “and we’re educating everyone as if they’ve never heard of COVID-19.”
One unique action the HBADOC has taken is to create a safety pledge. “My builders are getting the opportunity to sign a voluntary certification that includes a pledge stating the steps being taken daily to ensure job-site safety,” Fraccaro says.
To stay proactive, particularly with the Hispanic community, HCAC hosted a virtual safety talk on June 24 in response to the media reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases among Hispanics on job-sites. “These reports created uncertainty and fear,” says HCAC’s Velez, “so this virtual event was a community-wide conversation to supplement the one-on-one talks our organization has been doing.”
According to Yaritza Chavez-Galvan, Office Manager for Chavez Interiors, a subcontractor to some large commercial construction companies, “Everyone is following CDC recommendations, which is a great place to start, and we’re helping our employees as much as we can.”
For example, once face masks were required, Chavez Interiors made and distributed masks to the company’s entire team. The company created a safety plan as well, distributing it to all the GCs the company works with. “We’re also doing Toolbox Talks,” she adds, “spending five to 10 minutes each morning in a safety meeting, sharing information in both English and Spanish.”
Although every GC and subcontractor should at least follow the CDC and OSHA regulations closely, most companies have their own—typically more stringent—regulations as well. And, interestingly, these always supersede those mandates from the state or federal level.
Urtecho noted that the crisis has meant many job-sites are implementing safety practices that he has consistently taught for years. “Wash stations have always been a safety recommendation, including hand sanitizer or wipes at the portable toilets, which residential sites often lacked. Although OSHA has always mandated hand sanitizer, now the dispensers are always full.”
The bottom line is to stay aware of new research and regulations, and then continue the conversation. Business owners need to keep implementing best practices and educating employees, and workers must talk to and support each other. As Holly succinctly states, “When you know better, do better.”
“Hispanic workers are being informed, and training exists for them,” Urtecho says, “they’re just not as provoked to action as others. Even though they’re hearing of people testing positive, no one is getting severe symptoms, so the concern is just not there.”
Chavez agrees. “When they have colds, flus, etc.,” she says. “Hispanic men will push through sickness. So, with COVID-19, an asymptomatic—or mildly symptomatic—diagnosis doesn’t scare them, and it’s challenging for them to consider not working.”
Many Hispanic workers have two or three jobs, as do the family members with whom they reside. “Their potential for exposure is significant,” explains Urtecho. “Also, a lot of these guys live together in groups and often move around different apartments. So, any spike in this specific group isn’t necessarily due to job-site protocols. It’s more about the living conditions of the workers.”
Let’s do better.
So, with all the right actions taking place, what can be done better to address the unique needs of the Hispanic community within the construction industry?
Velez notes that GCs and subcontractors need to help workers be more aware of maintaining social distancing during the entire workday. “Although they may practice distancing while doing the job, they may still travel together in groups to and from the site without masks,” she says. The lunch break is another red-flag time. Groups will eat together or drive to lunch together and not think about social distancing because they’re not on the job.
Another area where due diligence can fall off for construction workers is during residential remodels. “We’re finding that homeowners are getting increasingly comfortable with workers in their homes and not social distancing,” Fraccaro explains. “We need to improve everyone’s conscientiousness about maintaining social distance. Even if the homeowner hasn’t left the house, the builder has. Protection is key.”
Chavez shares how it’s imperative to figure out means to communicate directly with workers. “We’re relying on the GCs and supervisors,” she says, “but we’ve got to use technology to send safety information right to workers’ phones.”
As summer temperatures rise and masks continue to be required, it’s also vital for GCs and site supervisors to talk about how to safely navigate the new mandates for face coverings. Velez emphasizes that workers must take frequent breaks to remove masks (while staying socially distant) and drink plenty of water. “If they can stay spread out, it’s safer not to wear a mask when working outside in the heat,” Velez says.
According to Chavez, “Wearing masks in hot weather, particularly for roofers, is a real concern. The mask also impedes peripheral vision, so we want to communicate the need for taking extra precautions.”
COVID-19 safety information for the job-site is available and being delivered in both Spanish and English. And, construction companies are doing their best to balance employee health and production.
“Jobs are being closed and sites fully cleaned, employee temperatures are being taken, and more,” Urtecho says. “There is a lot being done right. Ultimately, though, it’s up to each individual to take the necessary precautions to stay safe.”
Whether it’s current mask use, social distancing, or traditional construction PPE, job-site safety needs to constantly be top of mind for every construction worker during and after COVID-19. And, regardless of whether individuals are concerned about their own personal safety, the message on every job-site, from every GC, needs to emphasize the protection of others as the motivation for compliance.