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BEST PRACTICES: Contractors taking steps to keep crews safe during outbreak

The onramp to the Hoan Bridge is void of traffic on Tuesday in Milwaukee. Gov. Tony Evers issued an order that day closing businesses deemed to be nonessential, ordered no gatherings of any size and placed restrictions on travel across Wisconsin for a month in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Businesses that have continued operating, including many construction companies, have been taking various precautions to lower the chances that their employees will get sick. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The onramp to the Hoan Bridge is void of traffic on Tuesday in Milwaukee. Gov. Tony Evers issued an order that day closing businesses deemed to be nonessential, ordered no gatherings of any size and placed restrictions on travel across Wisconsin for a month in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Businesses that have continued operating, including many construction companies, have been taking various precautions to lower the chances that their employees will get sick. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Working in an industry that state officials have deemed essential, Wisconsin construction crews haven’t got the luxury of watching the COVID-19 outbreak unfold from home like many state residents. 

This exemption from Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” directive came as a relief to many contractors this week. But there remain fears that, without proper steps, construction sites could become breeding grounds for the coronavirus.

“The bottom line is to make sure our people have a safe workplace,” said Dan Burazin, director of safety and health for the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee. “How we do that is really up to the parties and the contractors. We try and follow best practices the best we can. And we are still trying.”

Although state and federal agencies in recent days have released guidelines meant to protect workplaces from the spread of COVID-19, individual companies and workers are nonetheless responsible for developing their own procedures, Burazin said. Groups like Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee have responded to this need by drawing up their own list of safety and health recommendations. Burazin said one goal is to ensure the industry has a uniform response to the virus. 

Don Moen, director of Safety at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, said procedures developed now may ultimately help to keep job sites safety after the virus wanes, perhaps during future pandemics.

“When this is all said and done this could enhance job-site safety with keeping some of these protocols we put into place,” Moen said. “As time goes on, there are procedures put in place that may stay on and may be better for our industry.”

Communication is key

Burazin said the most important step contractors can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to talk to workers. Company officials need to make it clear that if employees aren’t feeling well — if they’re suffering from coughing, shortness of breath or a fever, for instance — they shouldn’t report to work.

Burazin and Moen each recommend contractors screen workers before they’re allowed to start for the day. Some companies are using laser thermometers to take the temperature of employees when they report to work.

Contractors should also be asking workers a few standard questions. These include:

  •  Have you, or anyone in your family, come within 6 feet of someone who has a suspected or confirmed case of COVID–19 in the past 14 days?
  • Have you had a fever (of greater than 100.4 F) or experienced cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing in the past 14 days?
  • Are you experiencing any of these symptoms now?

Social distancing on a jobsite

Contractors can do plenty to prevent the spread of the virus at worksites. Take for instance, safety meetings. Many project managers hold these before work begins for the day. Burazin recommended that such meetings be staggered to keep group sizes small.

To further prevent unnecessary contact, contractors should be sending documents electronically as much as possible. This prevents people from sharing paperwork and pens. Workers also shouldn’t be signing off on paper documents. Burazin recommends hanging posters on a jobsite, or asking crews to confirm orally that they understand new information.

Project managers also need to think about how workers might come in contact with each other during the day. At some sites, workdays have been divided up into shifts, Moen said, to hold down crew numbers. And some residential contractors, such as plumbers, are trying to make sure that people are working always with the same crews rather than new people from day to day.

Crews must also be diligent about sanitizing shared equipment, wiping down handrails and keeping port-a-johns, lunch areas and other common spaces clean.

“I’ve never seen anything like this where you’re not allowed to touch the same thing that everyone else has touched,” Burazin said. “But it’s different now. There’s no such thing as going above and beyond.”

What happens if a worker catches COVID-19? 

Burazin and Moen each recommend preventing a worker who contracts the virus, or exhibits symptoms, from even entering a job site.  Contractors should treat someone who’s showing symptoms of COVID-19 as if they’re already infected.  The Wisconsin Department of Administration is similarly asking general contractors to report any possible cases of the virus that arise on state projects. 

Burazin recommended employers treat a case of COVID-19 like a workplace injury. That means documenting any ensuing investigation, and attempting to learn if a sick employee contracted the illness on the job.

If an employee catches COVID-19 at work, the case could be what the Occupational Health and Safety Administration considers a recordable illness. For that to be true, it must meet OSHA’s definition of a work-related injury and the agency’s criteria for recording an illness.  

Finally, employers should follow-up. Contractors should check on the condition of the employee and tell workers who aren’t sick what is happening. Moen cautioned, however, that medical information must remain private and contractors shouldn’t identify an infected worker by name. 

“The hope is we contain it, and the hope is a person with symptoms realizes it, and we ask them the questions and they don’t get on the site,” he said. “If they happen to have the protocol in place, that should lessen the chance of spread. If something does happen, we have to be ready.” 

About Nate Beck, nbeck@dailyreporter.com

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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