Protecting Construction Workers from Coronavirus

By Cindy Bryson, Haidy Ear-Dupuy, Jean Williams

COVID-19 has highlighted the need to routinely inspect construction sites including camps and address any overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

No matter how diligent a country is in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, active construction sites and worker camps will remain an area of high vulnerability due to the number of people working and living in close proximity to one another. Often large dormitories provided for migrant worker accommodation can sleep between 12-20 people resulting in overcrowding which is a major factor for the spread of diseases such as COVID-19.  Some have limited access to health facilities as host countries do not extend health coverage to migrant workers.

While most countries have implemented emergency quarantine arrangements or instituted a state of emergency, construction activities have continued as “essential services” in some countries. As a result, migrant (national and non-national) workers have remained at construction sites, sometimes living in crowded camps or dormitories where physical distancing can be a big challenge. Employers can help prevent the risk of transmission of the virus through the provision of decent accommodation for workers which also includes as a minimum provision of adequate supplies of soap, hand sanitizer, clean running water, clean and well-maintained sanitary facilities and other cleaning supplies in accordance with national laws and standards. 

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to examine the occupational health and safety standards and practices at construction sites and camps, to make improvements in living conditions. As construction activities commence and lockdown conditions are eased, there are easy and cost-efficient actions that can be implemented to reduce the risks of exposure to COVID-19 for workers at construction sites and camps.

Contractors can prepare an outbreak plan (or exposure control plan) consisting of both administrative and access controls that sets out responsibilities and procedures to avoid and minimize transmissions, following safety measures provided by relevant government authorities (the labor or health ministries) as well as good practices such as those issued by the World Health Organization

Building on health and safety requirements in a project’s environmental management plan, the administrative controls should include identification of personnel and their responsibilities and reporting lines for health and safety matters, to ensure that the outbreak plan will be implemented and monitored. Workers also need to be made aware of protocols around self-assessment and who to report to if they suspect they have symptoms.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to examine the occupational health and safety standards and practices at construction sites and camps.

Designated staff responsible for health and safety should ensure that the rooms are clean and disinfected regularly, workers’ temperatures are checked each day, and that there are adequate supplies of soap and water (or hand sanitizers with an adequate level of alcohol to kill the virus as recommended by the WHO). Workers also need instructions for everyone to practice good hygiene.

Ensuring that everyone has adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for preventing spread of COVID-19 is another issue. This includes face masks, wipes, and sanitizer as well as guidance on how to properly use them.  Where possible, staggering of shifts and working hours can further limit the risk of spread between workers.   

Access control measures can include restricting site access to workers performing essential activities (including inspections) and limiting access to the work site and camp area. Contact tracing can be enabled by maintaining a list of all visitors and their contact details. The point of access should check to ensure that PPE is supplied to every visitor and it is correctly used by the visitor before accessing work sites. 

An outbreak plan can specify details for contractors to provide training to employees on how to recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to conduct a self-assessment, encouraging anyone who is experiencing symptoms to notify supervisors through the established protocols.  Contractors can be encouraged to take action to ensure that sleeping quarters provide enough distance between beds, setting up additional space for workers to sleep, in such cases where current space limitations do not provide enough physical distance for workers. For example, bunk beds can be split to put beds far enough from each other. 

The outbreak plan can also identify how workers can access health support, including arrangements with local health facilities, provision of on-site medical staff and advice to workers with symptoms, and connections with facilities that can provide further treatment.

Going forward, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for employers and contractors to support workers’ well-being as it is in their interest to keep a healthy workforce, ensure business continuity and prevent productivity losses due to a virus outbreak at the work site.