OSHA has received more than 60,000 coronavirus-related complaints as of last March, primarily from employees seeking improved workplace safety measures.
In response to the many grievances received, OSHA launched the National Emphasis Program (NEP) in March 2021 to ensure businesses provide employees with adequate resources and protection during the pandemic.
The program indicated a new enforcement agenda to focus on organizations in industries that have greater potential for employee exposure to COVID-19, like construction companies.
Although construction workers represent a large portion of the U.S. workforce, many don’t receive adequate protection or benefits from employers. And most construction employees have continued to work throughout the pandemic, increasing their likelihood of contracting COVID-19.
So despite the availability of vaccines, construction companies need to take proactive steps to implement and reassess safety and sanitation standards for worker safety.
The importance of protecting and supporting construction workers
Working in confined spaces, sharing machines and tools, and carpooling to work sites put construction workers at a higher-than-average risk of contracting COVID-19.
Between August and October 2020, construction workers reported the highest number of asymptomatic coronavirus cases and the second highest symptomatic cases compared to workers in other industries.
Protecting employees should be reason enough to reassess your safety measures. But high employee turnover rates and the industry’s competitive hiring environment create added incentives — if workers feel unsafe, you risk losing them to the competition.
Additionally, the industry faces increased scrutiny from worker protection and advocacy groups.
As new variants of the virus surface, companies are under pressure to reassess their current efforts and provide resources to close any gaps in preparation for possible OSHA inspections.
How to protect employees and prepare for inspections
Compliance with upcoming changes in OSHA regulations is essential for construction companies to reduce COVID-19 transmission and maintain compliance with the law.
Employee safety and well-being must be a priority — and there are several initiatives worth considering to help your workers feel safer on the job:
- Enforce safety policies
Implement and promote company-wide policies like mandatory PPE, physical distancing, and frequent and proper hand-washing. Then go the extra mile to emphasize the importance of these policies by providing workers with masks and access to soap and clean water on worksites.
The CDC also recommends people should limit sharing tools when possible, regulate the number of workers who can be in a confined area, and regularly clean and disinfect surfaces like machines, doorknobs and ladders. And even though it’s out of your control, you should encourage workers to comply with CDC guidelines outside of work to mitigate the risk of introducing the virus to the workplace.
You should also take additional steps to ensure your workers’ health, like screening for COVID-19 symptoms before entering a construction site. Provide flexible sick leave and encourage workers to stay home if they’re ill — an especially important consideration since just over half of construction workers receive paid sick leave.
- Prepare for inspections
It’s important to prepare for the possibility of an OSHA inspection. Start by documenting existing procedures, policies and employee training on COVID-related protocols.
To ensure training was not only completed but also understood, consider creating a workplace procedure quiz or an acknowledgement of understanding.
You can also follow up by walking the worksite and asking questions to gauge workers’ understanding of the policies and guidelines in place.
- Provide resources for workers
Construction workers are the least likely of all essential workers to get vaccinated.
To increase your workforce’s immunization rate, provide employees with unbiased, third-party information about the COVID-19 vaccination. Organizations like OSHA, CDC and WHO offer excellent resources that can help workers make informed decisions about vaccinations.
Although OSHA recommends against implementing different sets of requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers to avoid bias, educating workers is one of the best ways to encourage vaccinations.
You may also want to compile information about nearby vaccination clinics and their hours to make the process more convenient for employees. Likewise, consider offering flexible scheduling or time off for workers to get the vaccine.
A healthy workplace means healthy workers
It’s crucial for construction companies to abide by the upcoming changes in OSHA safety standards and procedures — and not just for legal purposes.
Strong safety and sanitation standards within your company will increase employee retention and reduce the number of positive coronavirus cases, which is just as important now as it was at the beginning of the pandemic.