As businesses re-open after closures during the coronavirus pandemic, there is more risk for workers to be exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) advises in a recent update. That makes it more important than ever to focus our efforts to minimize the spread of this virus.
The U.S. Department of Labor has issued OSHA guidance and created a webpage dedicated to COVID-19 to assist the construction industry as it returns to work in South Carolina and across the country.
OSHA says the guidance is intended to keep construction workers safe but imposes no new legal obligations on businesses.
“It contains recommendations as well as descriptions of mandatory safety and health standards. The recommendations are advisory in nature, informational in content, and are intended to assist employers in providing a safe and healthful workplace.”
The recommendations featured in an accompanying OSHA news release include:
- Keeping in-person meetings including toolbox talks and safety meetings as short as possible, limiting the number of workers in attendance, and using social distancing practices
- Requesting that shared spaces in houses or occupied office buildings where construction activities are being performed have good air flow
- Staggering work schedules to reduce the total number of employees on a job site at any given time and to ensure physical distancing.
How Has COVID-19 Impacted the Construction Industry?
The full economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the construction industry in South Carolina has yet to be determined. A report by Colliers International, a real estate services and investment management company with offices in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, indicates what a global concern construction in the Palmetto State has become. The report’s synopsis reads:
The effects of the coronavirus, COVID-19, are being felt in South Carolina with a growing uncertainty regarding the virus and its ancillary effects on the economy. The severity of the impact of COVID-19 on South Carolina’s construction industry will be determined by the virus’s effect on the globally interconnected workforce, with primary emphasis on manufacturing employees and construction workers with the Port of Charleston or any other seaport caught in between.
MidlandsBiz, an online business magazine focused on Columbia, says in an article that quotes the Colliers International report that a reduction in Chinese manufacturing and shipping was felt early in the pandemic in the U.S. market. The article quotes Jim Newsome, CEO of the South Carolina Ports Authority, as anticipating a 15% drop in volume during March and April. Various material suppliers announced price increases ranging from 5% to 10% on gypsum board, fiberglass panels, acoustical ceiling tile, metal studs and paint.
“In a best-case scenario, it should be anticipated that the industry will experience temporary price increases and prolonged lead times on certain materials. If the worst happens, the ability to deliver projects on time and on budget may be in jeopardy. Proactive, professional management of construction projects and staying abreast of current trends will be critical to success in either scenario,” the report says.
Among the steps MidlandsBiz recommends for those planning to develop or renovate properties is to “protect workers from infection by following recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).”
How Can Construction Workers Protect Their Health and Slow the Spread?
Among the recommendations from OSHA and the CDC for construction workers are:
- Notify your supervisor and stay home if you have symptoms. Notify your supervisor if you have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 and follow CDC-recommended precautions.
- Limit close contact with others by maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet, when possible. Limit the number of workers in small workspace areas, such as job site elevators, trailers and vehicles, and spaces under construction, if possible.
- Use closed doors and walls, whenever feasible, as physical barriers to separate workers from any individuals experiencing signs and/or symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Consider erecting plastic sheeting barriers when workers need to occupy specific areas of an indoor worksite where they are in close contact (less than 6 feet) with someone suspected of having or known to have COVID-19.
How Employers of Construction Workers Can Slow the Spread
Among the recommendations from OSHA and the CDC for construction employers are:
- Have a COVID-19 response plan to protect workers that follows CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers, and share this plan with employees and contractors in languages they all understand.
- Conduct toolbox talks on all job sites to explain the protective measures in place.
- Provide employees with access to soap, clean running water, and materials for drying their hands or, if soap and water are not readily available, provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol at stations around the job site.
- Modify work schedules to stagger work, provide alternating workdays or extra shifts to reduce the total number of workers on a job site at any given time.
- Screen calls when scheduling indoor construction work to assess potential exposures and circumstances in the work environment before worker entry.
Pre-existing OSHA standards (29 CFR 1926 Subpart E) require that employers provide personal protective equipment (PPE) required by the job. On the new webpage, OSHA says, “Most construction workers are unlikely to need PPE beyond what they use to protect themselves during routine job tasks.”
Are Construction Workers Protected If They Get Sick on the Job?
A recent report from WIS TV 10 in Columbia says South Carolina OSHA has received 135 COVID-19 related complaints about problems such as:
- Lack of or inadequate amount of personal protective equipment
- Individuals working who had symptoms of COVID-19
- Not complying with social distancing
- Employers not listening to/acting on employee complaints.
Construction workers who have evidence that they became ill with COVID-19 while on the job may be able to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. How the worker can prove he or she contracted the virus at work and nowhere else during a pandemic will be the primary issue as the state considers a contested claim.
One positive development in the potential for workers’ comp claims over COVID-19 is that the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission has updated its system in anticipation of COVID-19 cases. The WCC announced in a news release that it will accept two new Injury Description Table codes:
- Cause of Injury Code (DN0037) – 83 for “Pandemic”
- Nature of Injury Code (DN0035) – 83 for “COVID‐19”
The workers’ compensation attorneys of Joye Law Firm are actively reviewing cases from workers with COVID-19-related workers’ comp claims. If you or your loved one’s coronavirus case was truly contracted while on the job, you deserve benefits and we will fight with you to get them.
Our firm has offices in North Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Columbia, and Clinton. We also represent work injury victims throughout the state of South Carolina, including Horry County, Richland County, Laurens County, and Lexington County. Call us at 888-324-3100 or contact us online to schedule a free evaluation of your case.