The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an important regulatory agency for any type of workplace employee.1 This includes skilled traders workers, such as electricians, welders, pipefitters and HVAC techs.2
Operating under the U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA has created and enforced standards for safe workplace conditions since 1970.1 Now, in 2020, OSHA has released new advisory information for the construction industry in light of the pandemic.
Essential workers in the skilled trades who may encounter occupational exposure to COVID-19 should be aware of these new recommendations.2
COVID-19 Exposure Risk Levels May Vary
As a welder, electrician, pipefitter or HVAC tech entering the job market during this time of global pandemic, it’s important to pay attention to federal, state, local and private workplace safety recommendations.
Not all exposure risks are the same. OSHA has outlined three different COVID-19 risk levels for construction workers:2
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- Lower Risk (Caution): At the lowest risk level, construction workers are able to keep a 6-foot distance while performing tasks, and the work involves little or no contact with the public or customers.2
- Medium Risk: Medium-risk jobs may require workers to interact with others in close proximity. Workers may not be able to maintain a 6-foot distance between each other. This may also describe cases where workers are required to be within 6 feet of the public, including customers.2
- High Risk: A high-risk situation describes an indoor work site where there are workers, customers or residents who are suspected of having COVID-19. In this case, employers may decide to postpone the work.2
(NOTE: There is also a fourth category, Very High Risk, but OSHA has determined that this category would generally not be applicable to construction workers.)2
How do you know which level of risk a job carries? It would be your employer’s job to conduct a workplace hazard analysis to determine which of the three categories the job would fall under. Higher-risk activities may be delayed until the job can be downgraded to a Medium- or Low-Risk endeavor.2
However, if a High-Risk activity is deemed emergency or essential, some engineering precautions can be taken, such as using physical barriers like closed doors or walls to separate workers from those suspected to have COVID-19. Plastic barriers can also be erected to minimize exposure.2
As a construction worker, you can find out if your employer is undergoing safety screening measures before sending you to a jobsite. OSHA recommends that employers use administrative controls to reduce or eliminate the risk of exposure, including assessing the possible risks associated with a job, as mentioned above. OSHA has outlined different guidelines for different scenarios, which employers can follow.2
As a construction worker, your employer may train you on best practices for minimizing COVID-19 exposure:2
- Understanding the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and how the disease is spread.
- Maintaining social distance of at least six feet when possible between you and other workers or customers.
- Washing your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap is not available.
- Sanitizing all surfaces that workers touch.
- Avoiding contact with your mouth, nose and eyes.
- Avoiding shaking hands or making physical contact with other workers or customers.
- Proper use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
- Wearing cloth masks when appropriate to prevent spreading the virus.
- Staying home when sick.2
This list is not exhaustive but does cover OSHA’s basic recommendations for employee practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while on the job.2
If you’re currently taking welding classes or training for another construction occupation, check with potential employers to see how they’re preparing their workers to follow OSHA safety practices, both pertaining specifically to your job and also to COVID-19.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
What kind of PPE does a construction worker need when working at a jobsite? While each situation may vary, OSHA states that most construction workers will likely not need any PPE above and beyond what they would normally wear for a job, such as hard hats, gloves, safety glasses and face masks. However, employers must consider whether PPE would be required based on construction worksite hazard analyses.2
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone, including construction workers, wear cloth face masks as a protective measure. Cloth face masks may prevent the spread of COVID-19. Face masks should be used in addition to social distancing, and especially when social distancing is not possible. To clarify, cloth face masks are not considered PPE like an N95 surgical mask.2
For construction workers who may work an 8-hour shift, OSHA recognizes that it may not be entirely feasible to wear a cloth face mask the entire time. Specifically, a cloth face mask may become wet, damaged or soiled. To prepare for this scenario, employers should have clean face masks available to replace any that get wet or dirty.2
Take Appropriate Measures When Out in the Field
The bottom line for essential workers like welders and others who will be working at construction sites is this: Understand the official guidelines and recommendations from the CDC, OSHA, your state and your employer to make sure you are in compliance with the appropriate safety measures.