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By: Kendall Jones on April 1st, 2020

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Should All Construction Be Essential During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Construction Industry News | COVID-19

Is construction essential during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic? It’s a question that has popped up almost daily as more states and municipalities issue “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders. The states of Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington along with cities like Boston, Austin, and San Francisco have shut down almost all construction projects within their borders.

There are a few exemptions among those for things like essential infrastructure, emergency work, and hospitals and healthcare facilities. In Vermont the only construction allowed “construction necessary to support the COVID-19 response and maintain critical infrastructure.”

What Construction is Essential

For most of the other states, cities, and counties that have “shelter in place” orders, construction is one of the few industries and businesses considered essential. I’ve read through most of the state executive orders and they typically allow “construction (including, but not limited to, construction required in response to this public health emergency, hospital construction, construction of long-term care facilities, public works construction, and housing construction).”

In some orders, school construction, essential business construction, and/or essential commercial construction is added to the list of construction activity deemed essential. But what does essential commercial and business construction mean? That typically covers whatever businesses the order claims as essential like grocery stores, hotels, pharmacies, liquor and beer stores, gas stations, restaurants, etc. but not things like office buildings, movie theaters, and retail stores that don’t sell food or essential items.

“The construction industry provides critical services for public safety and welfare with building, highway-heavy, and utility needs. Construction workers maintain and improve our nation’s infrastructure, including vital energy and communication systems, roads and bridges, and social infrastructure such as police, fire, and healthcare facilities,” noted Dave Simpson, President & CEO of Carolinas AGC (CAGC). “We strongly recommend that all levels of government treat construction as essential services that should be continued in this time of crisis. While there is a risk of communicable diseases in every industry, construction sites are a unique workplace with their own levels of ‘social distancing’ built in. They also are often tightly controlled, with the required safety protocols and separation from the general public.”

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A Catch-22 for Craft Workers & Laborers

Most people who work in construction don’t have the option to work from home. Sure, there’s office staff, estimators, project managers, and executives at construction firms that can do most of their job remotely. For the foremen, safety managers, site superintendents, skilled craft labor, and general laborers—the ones who actually build the projects or oversee the work—don’t have that luxury.  

On one hand, there are plenty of workers that want to keep working as long as it’s safe. On the other hand, especially for those who are living paycheck to paycheck, it’s a choice of not working, losing their job, and not being able to put food on the table or continuing to work and risk getting sick. This is especially hard for workers with compromised immune systems or who have family members at home who are immunocompromised.

The Debate Rages On

There are those that think all construction should be stopped during these “shelter in place orders” and those that think that all construction should be allowed to continue. Still others think that only truly essential projects like hospitals and healthcare facilities and emergency maintenance and repairs should be allowed.

Look, I get it. The fear of potentially contracting COVID-19 for those still on the jobsite every day is very real, and justifiably so, and we’re talking about a virus that is at least 10 times more deadly than the flu. (During last year’s flu season, approximately 1 person died for every 1,000 that got the flu.) Having to choose between losing a job or potentially losing a life to a virus doesn’t seem like much of a decision.

Take a look at #StopConstruction on social media and you’ll get a good sense of the fear and anger that construction workers are trying to cope with.

I also see the reason some companies and trade organizations are pushing to keep construction going. The long-lasting impact of the Great Recession is still fresh on many people’s minds. If we aren’t already in a new recession, it’s probably just a matter of time. Many companies want to keep their workers employed and for many construction companies the only way to do that is to keep them working.

Construction spending plummeted, the number of construction firms fell by nearly 150,000 between 2007 and 2013, over 2.3 million jobs were lost due to layoffs, early retirement, and workers leaving and starting new careers. As a result, there are areas of the country that are still struggling with a skilled labor shortage.

We’re also seeing delays and shortages in construction materials and building supplies as well as permitting and building inspections as many governmental offices are closed so government officials and inspectors are working remotely which is also leading to delays in projects.

Ideally, construction firms and project owners could work together to ensure worker safety and continue work. This might mean extending the completion date or tweaking the project timeline and construction schedule to make that a reality.

Protecting Workers on the Jobsite

Safety is supposed to be the number one priority on every jobsite. OSHA regulations clearly state that employers are required to ensure that the workplace is free of hazards that could result in serious injuries or death. On the jobsite, that’s as true for fall hazards and struck-by hazards as it is for COVID-19.

Social distancing should be enforced, even if it means altering working practices. PPE, such as gloves and face masks or N95 respirators (if available) should be used. Hand washing and sanitizing stations should be put up all over the jobsite for easy access.

Workers shouldn’t be sharing any tools and if they do, they need to properly clean and sanitize them after each use. Porta-potties should be cleaned and sanitized after each use as well as the cabs and handholds of any heavy equipment that is used.

Employers should be limiting the number of workers and visitors allowed on the jobsite. Workers should be screened for symptoms and have their temperature taken before setting foot on the jobsite each day. Any worker who exhibits symptoms should be sent home to get tested and self-quarantine for 14 days or until they receive negative test result. If a worker tests positive, the entire site should be shut down until it can be properly sanitized.

Final Thoughts

These are unprecedented times we are living in. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. continues to climb. When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, there were 1,301 reported cases in the U.S. and 38 deaths. As of March 31, that number has risen to 184,487 cases and 3,756 deaths. At this point, flattening the curve is essential.

Construction firms, project owners, and government officials should be working together to find a solution that allows truly essential projects to continue while implementing the maximum amount of safety procedures and protocols into place to protect workers from contracting and spreading the virus.

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About Kendall Jones

Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.