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The AIHA Offers a New Blueprint for Meeting the Challenges of COVID-19

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The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) just released a new publication, Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19, developed by the AIHA Construction Committee. Construction workers don’t face the very high-risk levels faced by hospital staff or meat packing plant workers, yet numerous construction-related COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported. One important feature of construction – the constantly changing nature of projects — presents its own unique challenges. Low exposure outdoor tasks one day may be followed by higher exposure tasks the next day — such as work in an enclosed unventilated area with noisy equipment where workers must shout to communicate.  

Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19 was developed by construction safety and health specialists to meet the unique needs of construction employers. The guidance, available as a free download, covers how exposures can occur and what construction exposures are likely to be low, medium, and/or high risk. Of particular value, it provides a practical seven-step strategy for reducing and controlling COVID-19 hazards on the job site. It guides contractors through the decision-making process for selecting personal protective equipment (PPE), and clarifies the differences between face coverings and respirators. It also links to current CDC and OSHA guidance and other helpful resources.   

“One important feature of construction – the constantly changing nature of projects — presents its own unique challenges.”

Step 5 of the seven-step strategy for controlling COVID-19 on the job site describes how to perform a job safety analysis (JSA) to plan the preventive measures needed for specific tasks. It gives guidance on what exposure factors will make tasks more hazardous, such as jobs where people need to shout or where they need to work close together. It also gives examples of controls to make those tasks less hazardous, such as using barriers, arranging for temporary ventilation or even using radios or phones. 

Six months into the pandemic, most construction employers have put in place basic measures to minimize coronavirus exposures. Unfortunately, the virus will continue to be a fact of life until a vaccine is widely available. In the meantime, check out the new publication to adjust and refine your COVID-19 control plans.  

Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19 was developed as a companion document to the AIHA publication, Focus Four for Health. That free publication shines a spotlight on four common construction health hazards. Like Focus on Construction Health: COVID-19, it outlines the problems – and then gives practical ways to address them. The major health problems in construction that it addresses are:

  • Manual material handling — Overexertion during lifting, pulling, pushing and carrying is the top cause of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Those account for about a third of all work-related injuries in construction and about half of all workers’ compensation costs.  
  • Noise — Exposure to high noise levels cause hearing loss and tinnitus. Recent findings also suggest links to sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression and impairment of balance. Almost three-quarters of construction workers in a 2011 study were found to be exposed to noise levels above the recommended exposure limit set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
  •  Air contaminants — Dust, fumes, vapors and gases can cause short- and long-term health effects, from asthma and irritation to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, nervous system problems, kidney damage or even cancer. More than half of construction workers report being regularly exposed to vapors, gas, dust or fumes twice a week or more at work. The risk for developing an occupationally related disease after a working lifetime in construction is two to six times greater than for non-construction workers. 
  • High temperatures — North American summers during the last decade rank among the hottest on record. Heat stroke, the most severe heat-related illness, can cause death or permanent disability if not treated quickly. An OSHA study of 20 construction heat illness cases involving 13 deaths found that four occurred on the first day of the job.

AIHA represents the professionals who specialize in occupational health. Our Construction Committee is dedicated to raising the profile of health in construction. We want to assist employers with their efforts to make construction worksites healthy. AIHA provides valuable information on health hazards, including COVID-19, at workerhealthsafety.org/construction.  

Matt Gillen, MS, is a retired industrial hygienist. He is an AIHA fellow and volunteer with the AIHA Construction Committee. He led the Focus Four for Health publication team and was a member of the Focus on Health: COVID-19 team. 

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